Does opening your blinds to direct sunlight actually warm a room? What exactly should you be looking for, energy efficiency-wise, when buying or renting a home? Do you need an energy audit – and what is that? Typical energy efficiency tips rarely answer these types of questions.
For each month of 2022, OPPD’s Energy Advisor Eric BenSalah will provide insight into some of the lesser-known aspects of energy efficiency, along with some in-depth discussion of more broadly known topics.
The holidays are arguably the most lit up time of year despite the shortened amount of sunlight we get each day. We decorate our trees, fireplaces, front doors, houses, lawns and more with lights of all shapes and sizes. Sometimes we even have blown-up decorations! And, of course, all of this uses electricity.
In this final article of 2022, we are going to look at energy efficiency and holiday lighting and what you can do to enhance your holiday lighting experience with smart technology.
The lights and efficiency
There are many sizes and types of holiday lights: large bulbs, medium bulbs, small bulbs (that really don’t resemble a bulb by that point) and now we even have rope lights! The technology for lighting has improved to an impressive degree. Just like the traditional lights we use to light up the inside of our homes, we should take into consideration the type of light used in our holiday lighting.
The biggest and most effective recommendation when it comes to energy efficiency with holiday lighting (you might have guessed it) is to replace any incandescent lights with LEDs. LEDs not only use less energy, they produce less heat than incandescent lights which can be a safety/fire hazard (more on that in the next section).
Just as LED light bulbs have gone down in price, LED holiday lights (like strings of light, rope lights and more) have also gone down in price. So has their energy consumption. The US Department of Energy estimates that LED lighting uses at least 75% less energy and lasts up to 25 times longer than incandescent lighting.
As you can see and would imagine, the more lights you string together the more expensive it all becomes. It’s one thing to have one string of lights, but when we decorate our homes and trees, that one string of lights becomes 10, 20 or 30! And with that increase in strings comes an increase in cost. LED holiday lights provide the same amount of brightness and color for a fraction of the cost of incandescent lights.
Light strings with LED bulbs can also be rather long without overloading the circuit. That isn’t true of incandescent lights, a long string of which also could end up being a significant safety hazard. So, let’s get into safety.
One of the safety recommendations out there is to never leave the lights on unattended. In fact, it is recommended that they be turned off when you go to sleep. Now, depending on the complexity and sheer quantity of lights you have set up, this could be a pain to do. However, there are ways to alleviate that job of plugging them in and unplugging them every day.
Smart technology like smart plugs and smart outlets go a long way in providing convenience in situations like these. If you have your tree or other holiday lighting plugging into a smart outlet or smart plug, you can simply turn the lights on or off from your smart phone.
Better yet, you can even program when the lights should turn on and when the lights should turn off. Many smart device and smart hubs come with a feature to turn on/off lights with the sunset or sunrise every day. This is an especially convenient programming feature.
Some LED rope lights (if not most of them by now) are already preprogrammed to be smart rope lights you can control from an app on your phone.
All in all, just like most technology, lighting technology has improved to impressive levels and this is no different in the holiday lighting realm. There are so many wonderful and clever ways to light up our homes, trees and more without breaking the bank of your electricity bill.
As always, though, we want to be sure we are being as safe as possible so we can continue to enjoy these decorations and moments with family and friends. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday and thank you for joining me here every month, all year long.
What was the line? “Brace yourselves: Winter is coming.” Well, that is exactly what is happening, only with fewer dragons and more energy-related concerns.
We have experienced the all-four-seasons-at-once part of living in Nebraska, not to mention the few weeks of actual fall weather. Now the winter months are approaching, which is leading us to make some changes in our home to be more comfortable. In this month’s article, I want to explore some of the helpful ways to make your home not only more comfortable for the colder months, but also more efficient.
In our the video below, I outline a few tips that can help you prepare your home:
Surely those aren’t the only ways to prepare? No, they are not! Let’s look at a few others.
You may have noticed that thermostat temperature recommendations online and from your friends often suggest keeping your home at 68 degrees to improve energy efficiency. Although this recommendation is well-intended, that setting is not always best.
The problem is: 68 degrees in one home will not feel the same as 68 degrees in another home. Not only that, the cost of keeping your home at 68 degrees – whether cooling or heating – will differ from one house to the next. If a home is not energy-efficient (e.g. well-insulated, efficient HVAC system, very few leaks, etc.) it will likely cost more to cool or heat a home to 68 degrees than one that is energy-efficient.
So, what should you do? It comes down to what you are comfortable with physically and financially. Just as we pay more for a better seat/class on an airline flight, or for an upgraded hotel room, we pay more for comfort, one way or another.
My recommendation is to set the thermostat to a temperature that is the most comfortable for you and work out accommodations from there:
If these accommodations make you more comfortable, then you can look at lowering the thermostat by a few degrees to save on your heating costs, whether that be natural gas, propane or electric.
As I write this, I am at home, alone, in an office with two dogs. It is 28 degrees outside and roughly 65 degrees in my office. My thermostat is set to 63 degrees. I don’t need it any higher because I am only occupying one small space within my home. If I feel like I need a little more warmth (besides the sweater I have on), I will use a small space heater on low.
The cost to heat my home by just one degree could increase my natural gas usage by as much as 3%. This may not seem like a lot for an hour or so, but if this occurs every day, it adds up. Especially if I will need the extra warmth for longer than an hour.
Instead, by using a space heater on low (700 watts) as needed, I will keep myself comfortable without having to waste energy on heating the rest of my home. No matter the size of your home, this measure helps reduce the amount of energy required to stay comfortable.
A caveat to using a space heater, as with anything that uses electricity, is to be mindful of the amount of time you use it. If you have been reading these monthly articles, you know math tends to find a way in. This month is no exception.
If I use that 700 W space heater for one hour, it will cost me seven cents per day. If I use it for an hour every day, it will cost me about $2.18 on my OPPD bill. Turning my thermostat up one degree will cost me more than an extra $2.18 a month. Even more if it was an electric furnace (i.e. resistance heating).
But, if I used that space heater at 700W for eight hours a day, all month, it will cost me 57 cents a day or about $17.50 a month. Now, will that cost be cheaper than the one or two degree increase on my thermostat? Yes. But, keep in mind 1) the space heater is on low, which uses about 700 W, whereas high uses 1500 W or 1.5 kW, and 2) this is only to make one room more comfortable. At some point, you’ll have to make the whole house comfortable.
The bottom line, when it comes to using space heaters, is to make sure you lower the thermostat if it’s just you in the home in a small area, and only use a space heater when you need it. (And always be sure to follow your space heater’s safety guidelines.)
The last thing I want to touch on is less about technology or machinery and more about our bodies and their response to temperature change.
Radiant energy is not reserved for just the sun’s heating of the Earth’s surface and the sidewalks that lace our neighborhoods together. We also experience this process in the winter time. It, essentially, is what makes us cold: We lose our heat.
Gases move from high-pressure areas to low-pressure areas. Heat flows from hot objects to cold objects.
This is where well-insulated walls, attics and even floors come into play. Think about walking barefoot on a stone-tiled bathroom floor. That can make your feet cold, which ultimately starts to make you cold. It’s more direct (e.g. foot to stone), but immediately your body’s heat starts leaving for the cold. This concept often occurs in the home, but in a more indirect way.
If you stand next to a cold wall, especially an uninsulated wall on the north side of your home, you will eventually start to get colder and colder. Your body’s heat will start to radiate to that wall. This concept applies to anything you sit by, sit on, or touch. Of course, long sleeves, sweaters, blankets and such can help slow the flow of your body heat (they’re like personal insulation), but you will feel colder and thus need more warmth.
At times, this can lead you to believe you need to turn the thermostat up or get out a space heater. In some instances, that could be the case, but take this into consideration before taking a measure that will cost you more energy. Of course, I want you to be comfortable and will always promote that, but if it’s the difference between wearing an extra layer or moving to a different spot, versus turning up the heat or turning on a space heater, then I recommend doing the former.
Just as a blanket envelops us and keeps us warm, we want our homes to do the same when we turn on the heat. But, not all homes are energy-efficient and we may not always have the money to make it that way, but we have the ability to make ourselves and our behavior that way.
There are a ton of things you can do around your home to prepare for the coming winter months while being mindful of energy efficiency. Some of those things do cost money, but many of them don’t, and in fact will save you energy and money. There is no silver bullet to energy efficiency, comfort and carbon footprint reduction, but it does start with us.
I’ll see you next month.
This year, I have been breaking down some basic energy efficiency tips, expounding on concepts like health and safety, what to look for when buying/renting a home and more.
Since October is Energy Efficiency Month, I felt it was a good time to talk about my path here, where and how I learned what I know, and what EE practices I partake in and have planned for the future.
Using this diagram we can see that from about the middle (Focus on the Person) to the far right are examples of energy conservation whereas from the middle (Focus on Equipment) to the far left are examples of energy efficiency.
Energy conservation is the result of a person’s actions. Examples include turning off lights or noticeably adjusting your thermostat, even if that means a loss in comfort. Energy reduction through EE, however, results primarily from the technology used. Using LED light bulbs (instead of turning off incandescent or even CFL bulbs), or using smart technology like smart thermostats can help you maintain comfort in your home while still reducing energy usage.
So, what about the middle way of both being energy-efficient and conserving energy? While there is not official title or moniker for that middle way, I like to call it being energy conscious.
Being energy conscious is the practice of using the benefits of smart technology and other improved EE equipment and combining that with energy-conserving behaviors.
You can be energy-efficient in a variety of ways, including: using smart technology, using non-smart technology (I’ll get to that), and making EE improvements to your home.
Smart technology is the more visible form of EE. Smart thermostats can learn your patterns and how you use your home to ensure you are comfortable when you need to be while reducing energy usage when you aren’t home or don’t need to be comfortable. In general, smart technology – when it comes to lights, outlets, power strips and more – provides the freedom of controlling your electrical usage from your cellphone.
Non-smart technology is still smart, it just isn’t digital. Examples include using bubble wrap to help slow the flow of heat through a window (it’s a cheap and semi-effective form of insulation), using sensor lights outside and using LED light bulbs, and using variable-speed blowers for your HVAC system.
You can also change your habits to increase EE, including using curtains/blinds to block or allow ambient heat into the home, replacing or upgrading your furnace filter, cleaning your registers and HVAC system, and properly using fans.
And you can make improvements: upgrading insulation, adding smart technology, replacing windows (although that should be one of the last things you consider; it’s very expensive), upgrading your HVAC system (also very expensive) and appliances, and even zoning your home if necessary.
Energy efficiency is important in a variety of ways. Some are financial, some are environmental and some are large scale, but the impacts are noticeable.
There are subsequent impacts that stem the ones listed above, but those are beyond the scope of this article. EE affects you the customer; communities, neighborhoods, cities and service territories; and the energy industry as a whole.
Through OPPD programs like the Cool Smart Program and the Smart Thermostat Program, participating customers help with those large scale affects above. These programs take individual participants and group them together to affect the greater whole. Even if you aren’t a participant of either of those programs, you can still make an impact on a large scale, especially when we work together.
Phantom load is something I have talked about in a previous month’s topic, as well in a video. But, one thing I don’t mention in the video is the impact of phantom load reduction on a large scale. It’s one thing if one household reduces its energy by 0.50 kWh by unplugging items or using smart technology to turn off outlets at the source (or using smart plugs), but a whole other if we have 20,000 customers doing that very same thing. 0.50 kWh x 20,000 = 10,000 kWh or 10 Megawatt-hours (MWh).
Energy efficiency provides a multifaceted way of reducing our energy usage without reducing comfort, leading to a reduction in how much we have to spend each month on energy. The practice of EE – installing smart technology, making improvements around the home, using other different EE measures, etc. – can lead us to not only a greener future, but also a reduced energy burden future. Plus, some of the EE smart technology is really fun to use!
Without question, overall advancements in technology have improved the physical comfort and accessibility of our lives. And improved technology has made some big differences in the realm of energy efficiency. Gone are the days of having to get up to turn lights on or off, or to change the temperature and other settings on your thermostat. In some cases, you don’t even have to push a button to do these things.
This month, I want to discuss some of the new technologies available and dive into their functions and their purpose: to reduce energy and/or to make you comfortable. So let’s take a look at the what, why and how of energy efficiency and technology.
A variety of technological devices can help you with energy efficiency and with staying more comfortable. Those devices include (but are not limited to): smart outlets, smart plugs, smart thermostats, hub devices like Alexa and Google Home and many others. There is even a Bluetooth capable furnace filter, though I haven’t tried that out just yet. Below, I will talk to smart outlets, plugs, lights and smart thermostats specifically.
So, what’s the point of these devices? It comes down to two main functions:
Smart outlets and plugs serve the same type of function. The main difference is that one is hardwired in (outlet) and one is plugged in (plug). Using a smart outlet or plug enables you to control the power to the device(s) plugged into it with your phone or hub device. Most smart plugs will have a corresponding app for your phone to control your devices, program turn on/off times, etc. In many cases, you can control all your smart devices from the app or by using voice commands through a hub.
Being able to program your outlet/plug to turn on/off at certain times or to turn off multiple lights/devices all at once enables you to easily take control of your energy usage. The idea here is to combine energy efficiency with conservation; this ability is a huge convenience factor for customers.
Personally, I like to do a bit of reading before I begin my work day. It’s nice to wake up and head into my office to find my reading light already on. I have lights programmed based off the time my alarm goes off. Moreover, I can turn off any and all lights in my home from my phone. And when I’m away from home for a long stretch, I can program them to turn on and off, giving the appearance of my being home.
Smart lights operate in a very similar manner to smart outlets/plugs, but with a few added features. They still have the programming capabilities, but they tend to also come with dimming and hue changing features that can add to the comfort of the home visually and while still reducing energy usage.
Smart power strips operate similarly to smart plugs and outlets. But with a smart power strip, you can plug several devices into one central hub, while still being able to control those devices individually. In other words, you can have three items all plugged into a smart outlet, but turn off power to just one or two of them. In many cases, depending on the brand and application (for your phone), you can even program the individual plugs on the outlet to a schedule.
Smart thermostats have various functions, the main function being improving the comfort in your home. Many smart thermostats can learn your home’s patterns – for example, when the home is unoccupied or what the household’s patterns are in general. Smart thermostats, like all other smart devices, can be controlled and fully programmed from your phone or smart hub, as well.
While smart outlets, plugs and lights do not directly reduce your energy usage (unless you’re switching out an incandescent or CFL for LEDs), they provide you the opportunity to be in more in control of their use, which can lead to less waste. Having the ability to use your phone to turn lights on only when you need them or turn them off when not in use helps you be more in control of your energy usage.
To take that function and ability one step further, consider plugging a power strip into a smart outlet/plug, especially if it controls numerous lights or devices you do not need on all the time. That way you have a convenient way to turn off multiple electronics.
A smart thermostat can save you energy and money not just in its normal function, but also in your use and taking advantage of its various abilities. Right out of the box, however, smart thermostats are not designed to save you money. In a way, you have to teach it to learn your patterns (e.g. coming and going) before it can start doing what it is designed to do. Ultimately, smart thermostats can help you reduce your energy usage and potential future issues by giving you access to information about the health of your system and your home as well as letting you control your system from anywhere.
The major convenience factor for smart thermostats is being able to control your HVAC system from your phone. This adds comfort to your daily life by precooling or preheating your home before you get home from work, raising or lowering the thermostat if you aren’t there or if you forget, to reduce your energy usage. My personal favorite: Depending on the brand and application, you can get energy reports on your HVAC’s usage, humidity levels and other parameters, as well as warnings if those become problematic.
One question I received recently was about how much phantom load smart plugs generate since they are always connected to Wi-Fi. Well, if you know me, you know I will test everything. So, I took one of my smart plugs at home and plugged it into a watt detector for 48 hours.
I tested two different scenarios (with nothing plugged into it):
The bottom line with phantom load is that if you want to reduce the energy loss from phantom load, a smart plug’s function will do just as good of a job as unplugging the item(s) and it’ll save your knees and back from having to unplug the item and plug it back in!
There so many new technologies coming out that allow you, the customer, to control almost any part of your home’s comfort from your phone. Not just smart plugs, smart outlets, smart thermostats and lights, but also: window air conditioners, damper systems to control air flow throughout the home, and many other just truly incredible feats of engineering, innovation and technology.
Inconsistent airflow is a common problem in homes, and not just in homes with a second story. Almost any type of home can run into issues where one or more rooms may be hotter/colder than others, sometimes significantly. Many factors play into a room’s temperature, including: cardinal direction (e.g. south-facing vs. north-facing), insulation or no insulation in the exterior walls, proximity to the kitchen or other heat-generating areas of the home, the floor the room is on.
There are a few ways you can either even out the temperature in the different rooms of your home or make the rooms you use most often more comfortable.
When your furnace or air-conditioner is running, air moves into return air registers and comes out of supply air registers. The air being pulled back into the system through your return registers then passes through a filter before being sent back out into the home through the supply registers.
An HVAC filter’s main job is to protect the internal components of your furnace and the A-coil inside that sits on top of the furnace portion. The A-coil is the part of the air-conditioner that gets really cold, which helps provide cold air in your home. The filter’s primary job is to keep tiny particles, dust and hair from getting stuck in or damaging the internal components of your furnace setup.
The filter’s second job is to help filter the air going into your system and back out into the home. This can help improve the indoor air quality (IAQ) of your home. How well a filter does this depends on numerous factors, including:
This may be one of the most common efficiency tips you’ve heard or read: Be sure to unplug all unused electronics to save energy and money.
So, does doing that really make a big difference? The short answer is yes and no. (How’s that for clarity?) If you have seen our video on “phantom” load, you understand that answer. If you haven’t seen that video, be sure to check it out, and read on.
Unplugging unused electronics (including appliances) does reduce your energy usage, but by a very small amount. As an energy-saving (and bill-reducing) measure, it is not very effective. You are better off simply turning the power off, or if you still want to unplug an appliance or device, connect it (and other electronics) to a power strip and turn that off. A few examples, based on eight hours of use a day:
The numbers that are often cited in terms of savings when it comes to phantom load are calculated by the amount it costs to use the item and multiplying that by however many hours it is not in use. For example, let’s take a space heater. When operating on high, it uses 1500 watts or 1.5 kWh (kilowatt hours). At a cost of 8.63 cents per kWh, that’s about 13 cents per hour. But if you unplug the space heater for six hours, you will not save 78 cents (13 x 6).
Energy tips come from a variety of sources: your local utility, the Department of Energy, a parent, a neighbor or maybe even your child. Many of those tips are often are common: Open your curtains to direct sunlight to warm a room or close them to help keep a room cool; or replace your light bulbs with LEDs to save energy and money.
This month, I am going to address those two particular tips and what the actual results are, along with some additional information to keep in mind.
Can you really warm a room by opening your curtains to direct sunlight or cool a room by closing the curtains to direct sunlight? This is probably the number one tip mentioned whenever EE tips are given out. But, does it actually work?
Using an infrared thermometer, with the curtain open, I checked the temperature of the window facing the sun, the wall next to it, and the floor on which the sun was shining. I also used a regular thermometer to determine the ambient air temperature (like your thermostat does). Here is what I found:
Outside temp: 88 degrees / Thermostat: 74 (set on cool) / Location: Living Room (about 10’ from the thermostat)
Summary: Every home is different. The home I tested this in did not have adequate insulation in the exterior walls. However, from the data above, there is a change in temperature which affects our comfort from a radiative standpoint. In other words, if you’re close to a hot wall or floor, you’ll feel hotter and the same goes for a cold wall or floor. Opening or closing curtains to use sunlight to your advantage can work in most situations. Sunlight can warm a room by as much as 7 degrees depending on the design of the home, the time of year and other factors.
The concept is simple: Replacing any incandescent or CFL light bulbs with LEDs will save energy, money and trips to the store to buy replacements. So, I have to ask: Is that true?
To understand part of the why, we have to understand how incandescent bulbs and LEDs create light. An incandescent bulb has a tungsten filament that gets superheated once an electrical current is established in the base of the bulb. The heat the filament gives off is so hot it glows which produces light. That energy is broken down to roughly 10% light and 90% heat energy.
An LED bulb has an electrical current that passes through a microchip which then illuminates tiny light emitting diodes (LED) to create visible light. That energy is broken down to roughly 90% light and 10% heat energy.
When LEDs first came on to the market, they were pretty expensive – as much as $5-10 per bulb! Now, you can buy a 6w (60 watt incandescent equivalent) bulb for as little as $2. Let’s break this down:
In doing the math, you will have purchased 6 incandescent bulbs for the lifespan of the average LED. Meaning you would have spent $6 when you could have spent $2 by purchasing an LED. And the usage difference? This is known as the payback period.
On average, LEDs that replace incandescent light bulbs have a payback period of three months. Meaning, after 3 months, the savings from the LED (compared to the incandescent) will have paid for itself. After that, it’s all savings!
LED bulbs use newer, improved technology to produce light, versus the tremendous heat used by an incandescent. LED bulbs can be prone to failing in a short amount of time or right out of the box. However, on average, an LED will last 10 years or even longer.
There are many other tips to put under the microscope and analyze; be on the lookout for more in the coming months.
For most of us, a home is the largest purchase we will ever make. A home needs regular maintenance (preventative and otherwise) just like we do, our cars do and so on. An energy audit is a great way to better understand your home as a system.
Energy audits are essentially inspections of a home with a focus on energy efficiency. Certified energy raters perform the audits and will inspect, test and measure various parts and aspects of the home. They will use the results they get to help the homeowner decide what energy-efficiency measures and/or retrofits (replacing an old technology with a new one) will work best or are at least cost-effective. An energy audit can also help ensure a home is operating safely in terms of combustion safety and air quality.
BPI Energy Rater Locator to find a certified energy rater.
For more information regarding a home’s HERS (Home Energy Rating System) rating, see About the HERS Index.
In the energy efficiency world, health and safety are just as important as efficiency and conservation. Whether you’re making energy conservation modifications and improvements to a current home or building a new one, health and safety hazards must be top of mind to avoid potential exposure to toxic and hazardous substances and situations.
By keeping some basic and important things in mind, you can help to ensure you and your family are safe.
Below are some common possible hazards to be aware of and steps you should take to prevent or address them.
So, outside of installing some detectors and regularly changing filters, what else can can you do to keep your home environment healthy and safe?
Homes now contain more and more energy technology than ever before. Even “updated” older homes can contain a smart thermostat or new HVAC system. All of this new technology means homebuyers need to assess all of their energy options when choosing a home if they want to be energy- and cost-efficient and safe.
There are plenty of things you have to do and think about when choosing a house or apartment. You can find a number of “walkthrough checklists” online to help you evaluate your next home. The tips below can help you ensure your home is in good working order – add them to your checklist.
Learn more about OPPD’s Energy Advisor program here.
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