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.
One of the biggest misconceptions about energy efficiency (EE) is that it is the same as conservation. In a way, yes, it is. But ultimately it is a different form of energy use reduction. There is an easy way to distinguish the two:
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.
Air moves throughout your home through ductwork that is attached to a central furnace and air-conditioning system. There are main lines of metal or flex-ducts that have smaller “trunks” coming off of them to distribute air to other parts of the home. The three main ways to do this are:
This is the simplest way to adjust the temperature from one room to the next; especially if your home doesn’t have dampers. Depending on the design of your home – ranch style, split level, etc. – some rooms of the home may be a lot colder/warmer than other rooms. As mentioned above, this can happen from a variety of factors, some of which can be remedied.
If you have one room that is really cold this summer, but another that is really warm, you can close the register (to varying levels) to the room that is really cold to help move more of the air-conditioned air to the warmer room.
Closing just one register may not be enough to adjust the amount of air shifting to another room. You will want to remember that closing one register will shift air to all of the other registers coming off of that particular “trunk” in the ductwork, but with a little trial and error you should be able to help make one more a bit more comfortable than it was.
In our Airflow video at www.oppd.com/ee (DIY Videos), I speak a lot to how dampers work and what they look like. I recommend checking out that short video for a more visual representation of how dampers work and using them to help balance the airflow in your home.
Dampers are similar to opening/closing a register, but are situated much closer to the source of the air: the blower for your furnace or air-conditioner. Not all homes have dampers. You’ll know if you have them if you see little levers place within the duct work, usually a few feet or so from the furnace.
Opening or closing these dampers changes the flow of air earlier on in the process which makes it much more effective at pushing air into one room or rooms than closing the registers. Dampers are usually found right where the trunk comes off the main duct itself (see image).
Note: It is highly recommended to note on the duct itself (with a permanent marker) what position is open (air flows) and closed (air stops) – it might even be helpful to note what position works best for summer or winter, depending on the room and home setup.
Zoning your HVAC system is the most expensive measure. It is effective at controlling where air flows and how much air flows. Separate, programmable thermostats control this. Zoning your duct system works by using dampers, which can be programmed to open and close. These control where air flows depending on the temperature of the room the zoned damper system controls.
A licensed HVAC contactor can help you determine if zoning would be a good solution for your home or if installing manual dampers will be just as effective (if not cheaper).
These three methods work well to control the flow of air and help make your home or just one particular room, much more comfortable.
However, outside of just using your hand to feel the speed of the air coming out of the register, how can you accurately measure whether or not your efforts have succeeded?
Anemometers are devices used to measure airflow as well as the temperature of the air flowing through the small fan (as seen below). You can find these at most home improvement stores or online.
The complexity of anemometers varies from fairly complex to simple. The one on the left [black] ranges from about $25-35 and will do an excellent job for home applications. The one on the right [yellow] will also do a great job, for even cheaper ($15-20), but with less options/features.
Ranch style homes, as you could imagine, are some of the easiest to balance your airflow out. Two-story and split level homes can be fairly difficult if not at least a bit laborious, but hopefully with this information you will be able to balance the airflow out just a little bit more. Add that on top of any energy-efficient measures you’re already doing and you’ll help reduce your energy usage and utility bill – not to mention just being more comfortable!
It’s easy to find tips and advice about HVAC filters, but what do you really need to know about them? With summer arriving soon, it’s a good time to make sure you’re using the right kind of filter. Summer and winter are when our HVAC systems get their heaviest workouts.
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).
The amount of energy an electronic device or appliance uses when it is turned off is significantly lower than when it is in use. I used a watt detector to determine just how much energy a space heater uses when it’s plugged in, but not in use. The amount might surprise you: 60 watts in 24 hours, which adds up to roughly a half cent per day, or about 16 cents per month.
So, back to unplugging the space heater for six hours. If you unplug it, you’ll actually save one-hundredth of a cent per day. At a maximum, if you left the space heater unplugged 24 hours a day for an entire month, you would save yourself 16 cents.
To look at your possible savings more broadly: You might save about $1-3 a month if you unplug everything in between uses. So why is that tip so popular?
The short answer is that one household following this process might reduce its energy load by 2.5 kWh a day. But, especially during peak energy use situations – like a scorching hot or bitterly cold day – if 10,000, 20,000 or 50,000 customers do this for a day, the energy reduction across OPPD’s service territory drops by 25,000, 50,000 or 75,000 kWh.
In closing, yes, phantom load is real and you can make a difference. The reality of phantom load, however, is that is works on a larger scale, when we all work together. On a smaller scale (e.g. in an individual home), it’s all up to you: How much effort do you want to put into reducing your energy use, cost and carbon footprint? Simply turning items off, or shutting off a power strip (or better yet: using smart plugs) will produce nearly the same effect for that effort.
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.
Certified energy raters have a mission to conserve energy, increase energy efficiency and help you save money. Also, they are there to help protect the environment from byproducts of energy consumption, increase the comfort of the home, improve the health and safety of the home, and increase the public’s awareness of energy-efficiency measures and services.
The recommendations the energy rater will make can be as simple as behavioral changes in the way you operate your home. Or, a rater might recommend expensive retrofits, such as replacing a furnace or air conditioner, or making some upgrades.
In order for the energy audit to be complete, a handful of tests generally will take place, including:
Once a complete picture of the home, how it operates, how you operate in the home, and other tests and variables are completed and evaluated, the energy rater will provide recommendations to the homeowner.
The recommendations will include items such as:
The energy rater will provide a written record of all recommendations and the report of the home.
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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