Here are some simple tips to save energy and money from Greg Jourdan, energy consultant and professor of Environmental Systems and Refrigeration Technology at Wenatchee Valley College:
Check thermostats. When you are home and awake, set your thermostat as low as comfortable — 68 F or below in the winter. Wear a sweater around the house to keep warm. When you are asleep or out of the house, lower the setting by several degrees. Invest in a programmable thermostat to automatically adjust the temperature in your home before you get back home from work, or in the morning and evenings. Thermostats have come down in price the past couple of years and they are getting super smart via the web. If you have a heat pump, consider buying a newer thermostat that has outside air temperature functionality via the web or a remote outside air sensor. This allows the thermostat to intelligently keep the auxiliary strip heat off, until it is needed. Remember, a heat pump is most efficient when the mechanical compressor outside is running and strip heat within the furnace is off.
Check for air leaks. A lot of energy is lost through drafty windows, so feel for cold air leaking around your doors and windows. If you feel cold air, buy a new seal kit to fix the air leaks around the door jams or window seals. Cover drafty windows with a heavy duty, clear plastic sheet on the inside of window frames during winter months. If you can afford it, it is best to replace old drafty windows with modern, energy-efficient windows.
Inspect water heaters. Set your water heater to 120 F and use efficient showerheads. If your water heater doesn’t work like it used to, it might have a bad element in the lower level because of sludge buildup over time. Call a licensed plumber and consider an upgrade to an Energy Star heat pump style water heater when your old unit is being replaced.
Check appliances. Wash clothes in cold water, and wash only full loads. If you are about to replace your washing machine and dryer, buy Energy Star rated appliances. Use your dishwasher at full capacity, and air dry dishes instead of using the dishwasher’s drying cycle.
Check lights. Switch to Energy Star-qualified LED bulbs. To select the right bulb for your needs, look for the Lighting Facts label when you shop. It’s a quick way to compare brightness (lumens), light appearance (warm to cool) and operating costs. Plus, the cool thing about LED lights, they last much longer than traditional lights.
Check refrigerators. Set your refrigerator temperature between 37 F and 40 F, and your freezer at 0 F. Buy a simple thermometer from the hardware store and put it inside the fridge to see the actual temperature. The numbers on the refrigerator dial don’t give you the temperature; they are just a reference point. Don’t put that hot turkey or ham dinner in the refrigerator right after dinner. Let the food cool down to ambient temperatures before putting it in the fridge. Hot food inside of the fridge makes the fridge run longer and use more energy. Unplug old refrigerators in garages or basements that might be used as storage, but are inefficient and not fully utilized. If you need extra food storage space for the holiday guests, buy a smaller dormitory-style, energy-efficient refrigerator. It will run less and can easily be turned off after the guests leave.
Remove small electric heaters. They use a lot of electricity, and are not energy efficient; unplug them. Plus, they often fool the home thermostat into thinking the home is warm enough and will fight the problem by blowing cold air, not warm air. They are also an electrical hazard and might burn down your home. Be careful; don’t get fooled by falsely advertised fancy wood-boxed electric heaters. They probably aren’t made by the Amish back in Ohio, but overseas by cheap laborers. And they are not energy efficient when compared to a heat pump or a modern central gas furnace.
Inspect home HVAC systems. Improve your home’s central HVAC heating system by replacing furnace filters and scheduling routine system maintenance to help air flow through the system more efficiently. If your ducts are under your house, or up in your attic, consider hiring a professional duct sealing and insulation contractor to repair any leaky ducts. It has been estimated that as much as 40 percent of your HVAC energy is lost into the crawlspace or attic because of older duct systems that have substantial leaks. If you are heating your home with a 100-percent electric furnace, consider upgrading to a modern heat pump that can save three to four times more energy than a standard electric furnace. And if you have a heat pump, DO NOT put the switch on the base of the thermostat into emergency heat mode. This function is only used if the compressor is broken or the unit is out of refrigerant. Fix the heat pump if it is broken; do not use the auxiliary electric heat unless it is an emergency.
Note that the heat pump has a balance point, where it may not be able to extract enough heat from the outside air during cold spells. This is typically around 20 F. When the temperature outside gets below the designed balance point and the temperature in the home starts to drop, the second stage of auxiliary heat will automatically be energized to supplement the heat pump to maintain the set point at the thermostat within the home. It will automatically control and compensate during cold ambient conditions to keep your home comfortable.
Home insulation. If you can see snow on your neighbor’s roof and there is no snow on your roof, you are losing a lot of heated air in your home through the roof. Hire an insulation contractor to add more insulation to your attic. If you have ice dams on your roof, this too is warning you that heat is rising and being wasted. If you have any walls exposed to the outside air, they shouldn’t feel cold to the touch. If they are, they might need to have insulation blown into the wall. The best method to determine the insulation and heat losses in the home is with a thermal imager. You can buy a cheap one for your phone for around $200 or pay for a professional to look at your home with a thermal imaging camera.
Energy incentives and energy audits. Call your PUD and ask about energy efficiency options, including inspections and energy audits, rebates on appliances, HVAC equipment, window upgrades, insulation, etc. They want to help you save energy. Remember, power is affordable in North Central Washington because we make it locally but sell it across the west.
Greg Jourdan has taught HVACR classes in the Environmental Systems and Refrigeration Tech department at Wenatchee Valley College for the past 32 years. He has worked as a teacher or energy consultant for PUDs, private businesses, local and federal government, and food processors, helping them to improve their energy efficiency and train their employees.