Using renewable energy to produce electricity and reduce your electric bill can be a sound long-term investment. Depending on the type of technology, you can expect a full return on your investment within 3 to 18 years. With financial or tax rebates from your utility company or state and national government, the payback period on your investment can be cut in half.
However, the very first step to considering any renewable energy system must be how to make your home or business more energy efficient. Generally, the basic rule is that for every $1 you spend on making your location more energy efficient, you save $3 to $5 on the cost of the renewable energy system. Let’s go over some basic ways you can make your home more energy efficient.
Making Your Home Energy Efficient
One of the easiest things that you can do to reduce your electrical consumption is change out your regular incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). CFLs use 65 to 75% less energy than a normal light bulb that produces the same amount of light. By replacing a normal 100 watt incandescent light bulb with a 32 watt CFL, you will save $60 to $80 in electricity costs over the lifetime of that bulb (10,000 hours). Now imagine how much you would save if you changed out all of your light bulbs to CFLs!
The technology for these bulbs has quickly evolved and improved in the last few years, while the cost has come down dramatically. You’ll find that there are CFLs that will now fit most light fixtures and lighting needs-there are even dimmable CFLs!. Head out to your local department or hardware store and buy CFLs for as many of your light fixtures as possible. The investment is well worth it.
Another alternative to traditional lights are tubular skylights . Tubular skylights look a little like shiny stove pipes that start with a transparent dome on top of the roof and come down into some room for day lighting. We frequently see customers using tubular skylights to bring daylight into hallways and closets. The light is, of course, entirely natural and in some installations can provide as much illumination as a 100-Watt incandescent light bulb.
Energy Star and EnergyGuide
One of the biggest consumers of electricity in most households is the refrigerator. In most households, refrigeration is the number one electricity consumer after any electricity-based heating or cooling systems. If your refrigerator is over 10 years old, chances are it’s electrically very inefficient. Consider replacing your current refrigerator with one that has a high Energy Star rating. Remember that just because a refrigerator may have earned the Energy Star label doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient model available-it only means that its efficiency exceeds the federally mandated efficiency standard by at least 15%. You can even do much of your investigation online at the Energy Star website. There you can search for the brand, type and size of refrigerator you want and sort by energy efficiency. When you shop in stores, consult the yellow EnergyGuide tags that are attached to all new refrigerators (and many other appliances). EnergyGuide is a different government program from Energy Star that offers information about annual energy consumption and shows you where each model lands in a comparison with similar models. For maximum energy savings, select the model that’s a leader in efficiency in its class.
Also known as “phantom loads”, ghost loads are the sneaky devices that constantly consume small amounts of electricity 24 hours a day-even when they’re not actually doing anything useful. While each device by itself may not consume much electricity, the combination of all of them within your household may easily consume the equivalent of two or three 60-Watt incandescent light bulbs left on all day and all night. Over the course of a single year this adds up to over 1 Megawatt-hour-in other words, enough electricity to power an entire energy-efficient house for 2 to 3 months!
What are these mysterious ghost loads? The most common examples are the “power brick” adapters, or power supplies, that charge or operate cell phones, laptop computers, cordless drills, answering machines, radios, inkjet printers, and many other household devices. They’re actually small transformers, turning AC electricity from the wall outlet into DC electricity for use by the device. While any one of these devices may only consume a small amount of power (e.g., 3-20 watts), a dozen or so of them, running simultaneously and continuously, consume a significant amount of electricity. What’s worse is that even when you’re not charging your cell phone or the battery for your cordless drill, that AC adapter may continue to consume power just because it’s plugged into the wall. Other well-disguised ghost loads are those devices which have the “instant on” feature, such as most modern television sets, VCRs, DVD players, many radios and even many computers. While all of these devices are supposedly turned off, they are actually consuming anywhere from 3 to 20 watts continuously-just to stay ready for you to use them.
How can you decrease the consumption of energy by these parasitic loads? One of the simplest solutions is to simply plug these devices into a power strip which has an off/on switch. When you are done using the devices and shut them off normally, then just hit the off switch on the power strip. Many people make it part of their nightly routine to shut off these power strips just before they go to bed. For AC power adapters that you use at night, like for charging a cell phone, put those on a separate power strip that you turn off during the day when you take your phone with you. Simple solutions like these could reduce your ghost electric loads by as much as 80%. In real-dollars terms, this means saving upwards of $120 per year in electricity costs, depending on your local electric utility rates and how dedicated you are to reducing your ghost loads.
A Special Note for People Who are Planning to Live Off-grid
If you’re planning to use an off-grid solar panel, wind turbine or hydro electric system and plan to have a 12 or 24 volt battery bank, you will often be able to find devices and appliances that work directly with these DC voltages. The benefit to using the devices is that they will not need an AC power adapter which needlessly consumes electricity whether or not the device in use. After all, what an AC adapter plug does is convert normal AC household electricity to DC type of electricity to power the device, and it rarely does that conversion efficiently.
Energy Efficient Cooling
During the summer (and in warmer climates) air conditioning is frequently the largest consumer of electricity. An inexpensive way to reduce the demand on your air conditioner is to keep your attic cooler with a solar attic fan. Powered by a built-in solar panel, solar attic fans turn on when your attic warms up during the day. By venting the hot air out of your attic all day long, the floors below stay cooler and as a result your air conditioner runs significantly less.
Solar attic fans can be installed by good do-it-yourselfers or carpenters. They require no wiring. A hole needs to be cut in the roof, the attic fan is slipped in and the edges are sealed up well with roof caulking. The solar panel built into the fan unit is designed to last at least 25 years. A solar attic fan is another wise investment that pays for itself very quickly.
For people who live in zones that are relatively dry but hot, evaporative coolers (also known as swamp coolers) are a cost effective and energy efficient alternative to traditional air conditioners. Evaporative coolers use about 25% the energy an air conditioner would need. Unfortunately, most people live in climates that when it’s hot it is also relatively humid. In these conditions evaporative coolers won’t work effectively.
Another simple and green method for reducing your home’s air conditioning costs is to plant deciduous trees whose leaves will shade your home in the summer time and shed its leaves for more sunlight in the winter time. By shading your home it heats up less, and therefore requires less cooling by an air conditioner. Planting a tree in this scenario has double the environmental impact, you’re reducing greenhouse gases by both using less electricity and because the tree itself absorbs carbon dioxide.
Energy Efficiency and Household Appliances
Many other appliances throughout your household will have a newer and significantly more energy efficient version available. Here is a short list of other appliances you should consider replacing with higher efficiency versions: water heating tanks, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, dishwashers, telephones, VCRs and DVDs, ceiling fans, fax machines, computers and copiers. To see which brands and models have Energy Star certification and to figure which ones of those are the most efficient, visit Energy Star’s website: www.EnergyStar.gov. To find out how much power your appliances are really consuming, invest in an inexpensive power meter like the Kill-A-Watt meter.
For many households the biggest bill is the heating bill. Probably the quickest, least expensive and easiest way to reduce your heating bill is to buy a programmable thermostat. You can set these thermostats to turn off the heat automatically when you’re not home and turn it on just before you arrive. You will easily recoup your small investment in the new thermostat within one winter by running your heating system less. See your local hardware store or HVAC company for pricing and availability of different models.
Another basic step to reducing your home heating bill is sealing air leaks and adding insulation. According to Energy Star sealing air leaks and adding insulation can reduce your heating bill by as much as 10%. For homes with attics, one of the easiest and most effective places to put down insulation is in the attic. Visit your local home improvement store to find out how much insulation in different areas of the home is recommended for your region.
In the last few years, the use of solar air heating systems has become more popular. Mounted on an exterior, southern-facing wall or on the roof, solar air heating collectors can reduce a home’s or business’ annual heating costs by as much as 30%. Costing far less than a new conventional heating system, solar air heating systems usually pay for themselves in 3-6 years. They’ll typically last for 18 to 35 years and require minimal maintenance. Working in conjunction with your existing heating system, the solar air heating system simply reduces your heating demand whenever you have even partial sunlight.
There are two basic flavors of solar air heating systems. There are ones that heat up fresh outdoor air and blow it into your home or business. The there are ones that take the air from inside your building boosts up the temperature by another 50 to 90 degrees fahrenheit and blows it back in (known as recirculating air solar heating systems). Newer homes and buildings which tend to be tightly sealed and have stale winter air will benefit doubly from the fresh air solar heaters. Older homes tend to be inherently draftier and experience full air exchanges with the outdoors a few times a day. These homes will benefit more from the solar air heating systems that recirculate the indoor air and boost it up in temperature. Typically, one 4×8 foot solar air collector is recommended per 750 to 1000 square feet of home space.
Water Heating Efficiency
More efficient models of domestic hot water heaters have also become available in the last several years. If you have an old hot water heater, chances are that it was not designed with efficiency in mind. Again, check out Energy Star’s website to find out which boilers are the most efficient.
Another good alternative to the traditional hot water heating tanks are instantaneous hot water heaters. These systems heat the water only when its being used. Normal water heating systems used in much of North America maintain a large tank of hot water to be used only a few times a day. To keep the water hot and ready at a moment’s notice these traditional hot water heating tanks consume energy throughout the entire day, whether you need it or not. Instantaneous water heaters only consume energy the moment you need the hot water, saving the typical household 30 to 50% of the cost of hot water heating. You can find instantaneous water heaters that use natural gas, propane and electricity from a variety of manufacturers.
Solar Water Heating Provides You the Best Return on Your Investment
The energy (natural gas, propane, electricity, etc) needed for hot water heating can be reduced by 60 to 90% by using a solar water heating system to pre-heat water before it enters your existing traditional water heater. Remarkably effective and efficient, even in northern climates, solar water heating technologies have matured significantly in the past 30 years. Designed to easily last 30 years or more with minimum maintenance, typically solar water heating system will pay for itself in its first 3-7 years of use. Solar water heating systems heat your home’s water with collectors that are usually placed on the roof of the home. The hot water produced is stored in an insulated tank until your home is ready to use it. Your traditional hot water will only kick on to heat up the water when the water temperature is not quite high enough. Solar water heating systems can be installed by advanced do-it-yourselfers, but it is recommended that a licensed plumber or installer review or do the more complicated plumbing.
Energy Efficiency – Your First Step Towards Clean Energy and Energy Independence
The first step before purchasing a solar electric or wind power system to meet your electricity needs is to intelligently reduce those needs. Most homes can inexpensively reduce their electricity demands by 20 to 30% without ever having to make any adjustments in the lifestyles of the occupants. We provided you with many energy saving tips in this article, such as:
Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones.
Upgrading your older appliances with EnergyStar star ones that have a very low annual energy consumption rating.
Minimize the many hidden phantom (ghost) loads in your house.
Insulate your home well for colder seasons.
Creatively use vegetation to keep your home cool in the summer and maximize sunshine entering the house in the winter.
Use solar heating technologies (not to be confused with solar electric technologies) to cost effectively reduce how much your traditional air or water heating systems have to work.