Home energy myths

| 22 Feb 2012 | 04:27

    What works, what may not. The point remains: You can make a difference, By Bill Makofske Warwick - Many times people act on information they think is valid, but which turns out to be “urban legend.” The following may clarify some questions about saving energy as we head into the worst of winter. Myth 1: If I turn down my thermostat, the furnace has to work harder to bring the temperature back up, so no energy is saved. Reality: This same argument made the rounds in the 1970’s but was proven wrong by a team of researchers at Princeton University who actually measured the energy savings. They found that reducing a thermostat saves a lot of energy. The savings depends on your climate, but in this area you can expect 1 percent savings for each degree dropped. Some examples: dropping from 72 to 68 degrees F saves 4 percent. Dropping from 70 to 60 degrees F at night for eight hours, or dropping the thermostat while you are at work, will save about 3 percent. If you set an automatic thermostat for one half hour before you get up or return, you will avoid waking up or returning to a cool house. An automatic thermostat typically costs $40 to $50, so you will make back your investment in months. Myth 2: If I add insulation in my attic, I will save a lot of energy. Reality: It depends. The amount of savings depends on what you already have in the attic. Adding 6 inches to an existing 6 inches of insulation will not save as much as adding 6 inches to an attic without insulation. But it’s crucial to seal air leaks to the attic first, because warm air rising from the living area can bypass the insulation. In addition, the warm air entering the attic contains substantial moisture which may condense and cause moisture, rot and mold problems. When you add insulation, avoid creating a second vapor barrier which will trap moisture in the insulation. The first step to insulating an attic is to seal the many entry ways from below. These include stack pipes, chimneys, electrical penetrations, recessed light fixtures, dropped soffits, partition walls and many more. Each needs to be sealed in a specific way with specific materials to meet codes and avoid potential electrical and fire problems. Then when you add insulation, be careful to keep it from getting too close to potential fire sources such as chimneys and recessed light fixtures. Myth 3: It’s expensive and difficult to save energy in a home. Reality: There are dozens of simple things that homeowners can do to save energy in their homes. These include no-cost and low-cost items such as using cold water wash detergent, using a clothesline, installing faucet aerators and low flow shower heads, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs and eliminating parasitic electric loads. Other easy, low-cost items include caulking and weather stripping around doors and windows, installing seals around outlets and switches, installing a programmable thermostat, keeping the furnace or boiler tuned up and operating efficiently, replacing filters regularly, insulating hot and cold pipes to the hot water heater, adding more insulation on hot water tanks (electric only), and opening shades and curtains in the winter on the south side to allow the sun to enter and warm the house (each square foot of south window saves the equivalent of about a gallon of oil burned at 70 percent efficiency over the winter). Myth 4: Homeowners can seal and insulate their houses themselves and achieve the same savings as professional weatherization firms. Reality: Though do-it-yourselfers can make improvements, professionals offer important services. First, most air leaks are hidden. A professional energy auditor will use a blower door to identify where the air leaks are, and measure the total air leakage into the house. The firm will then seal the major air leaks to reduce drafts and save energy before insulation is applied. Safety issues are also involved. It is possible to tighten a house too much, causing indoor air pollution problems. The blower door measurement shows the actual air exchange and whether is meets recommended air quality standards. The energy professional, following recommended procedures of groups such as the Building Performance Institute (BPI), also looks for potential hazards in the home that the homeowner may be unaware of, including natural gas leaks, carbon monoxide, mold and mildew, asbestos and possible structural damage. They also check for down drafting from the chimney that may cause danger from carbon monoxide and other combustion gases. Most homeowners don’t have the equipment or expertise to achieve both good performance and safety. Whatever actions you choose, saving energy makes your house more comfortable, saves resources and money, enhances resale value, and protects your largest investment, your home. Bill Makofske is a member of Sustainable Warwick’s 10 percent Challenge Committee and professor emeritus of physics at Ramapo College, where he taught energy-related courses. He also teaches BPI-certified energy auditing courses.

    Energy audits
    The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, through a Green Jobs/Green NY program, now offers a free or low-cost audit and low-interest loans to homeowners.
    Visit the web site www.getenergysmart.org to fill out an energy audit application and find local certified energy auditing firms. Only so much funding is available, so apply soon.
    Find out more about insulating
    See Cut Your Energy Bills Now by Bruce Harley (available in the Wisner Library) for the right way to seal and insulate the attic.
    The EPA has a do-it-yourself guide to sealing and insulating at www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/publications/pubdocs/DIY_Guide_May_.pdf.
    Energy-saving activities
    Saving 10 percent on some form of energy consumption isn’t that difficult.
    For a more detailed list of potential energy-saving activities, visit the Sustainable Warwick Web site (www.sustainablewarwick.org) and click on the 10 percent Challenge.