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How To Save Money And Make Your House More Energy Efficient

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(Note: this is a living article, updated periodically as technology progresses)

Energy EfficiencyWe all know that the best way to save on bills is to decrease your usage of energy. Energy efficiency has become a very popular topic these days which has resulted in many ways to save money at home. This article/review/tip is meant to add to the many great resources out there in helping you achieve just this (I’ll also try to provide as many example/product links as possible to make things easy). Hold onto your seat as this ride is a long one and very informative.

Starting with the most effective (and most expensive) and then leading into the more affordable solutions down below, we will begin with modifications to the structure of the home and energy systems in a quick list. 

  • Solar Panels (Effective: Oh Yes!)
    • SolarPanelsI love them, we love them, you love them, everyone loves these bad boys. Why? Because they are very effective. The problem? Price just isn’t there yet. However, the technology has improved over the years bringing a better price tag to consumers but we still have a a few years or so to go before the average consumer is going to want to jump on getting them installed. Eventually though, they may become a standard thing for most homes. You will have to consult a local service provider for pricing and details.
  • Geothermal Energy (Effective: Sort of….)
    • Image by Hydron Module

      Image by Hydron Module®

      This one isn’t so popular as the cost to savings ratio accompanied by the installation requirements isn’t the great. The idea is to use the heat from the earth as an energy resource. Mostly used for the heating of water by running it through long formations of underground pipes using the heat of the earth to deliver hot water to your home. Problem is that unlike a water heater attached to your house, it isn’t as effective heat-wise and takes awhile to get to your faucet. Did I mention the cost and labor involved isn’t really that great? Personally, I don’t see this taking off too far unless your living on a farm somewhere with a LOT of land. Still…it’s an option. You will have to consult a local service provider for pricing and details.

  • Wind Energy (Effective: Yes)
    • WindPowerWind energy is effective and with some local and federal rebate programs, somewhat affordable to some. It doesn’t provide as much power as solar though and you do of course rely on there being….wind. So if you live in a not-so-windy city/town, then this may not be a feasible option for you. You also have to be ok with a giant wind turbine either on your roof or flying high on a pole somewhere on your property. There has been some negative effects claimed by some such as dangers to birds flying by or mass wind energy farms causing a change in wind patterns but at the moment none of that has been proven yet. You will have to consult a local service provider for pricing and details.
  • Windows (Effective: Yes!)
    • energystar-windowsIt’s a pretty affordable solution now-a-days to have the windows replaced in your home if you have an older property. It generally runs a few thousand for an average house, especially if you shop around. The idea is to remove older windows and replace them with newer styles that are vinyl wrapped, PVC framed (instead of conductive metals), and even filled/injected with argon gas. Windows are given ratings to how efficient they are and a specialist can explain to you the difference between them and help you calculate savings vs cost to find the best option for your home. They do make a big difference as you can stand in front of the right low-e window in direct sunlight and barely feel the heat of the sun…where if you had an older plain-glass window, you would be cooking. This helps keep the heat outside and minimize the heat passing into your home.

Now those are some of the basic MAJOR improvements that have been popular in today’s search for low-e homes. We are about to bring up some of the do-it-yourself options but first lets point out a few things you probably want to stay away from.

  • Attic fans….really don’t do as much as you would think. They spend energy and you would be better off relying on upgrading your insulation than installing a fan up there.
  • High SEER rated A/C units….SEER is the energy efficiency given to the A/C units that sit on your roof or the ground next to your house. The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the unit it. The problem?…the price sores quickly causing it to be pointless as you won’t see any savings soon enough for it to make a difference. Sadly it’s best to stick with a SEER 13-15 range for rating (depending on cost…so shop around). Anything below that isn’t going to be too efficient and tips the balance of things.
  • Specialty toilets that promise low water consumption…not worth it. The price it takes to replace all of your toilets with them vs the savings you will actually see just isn’t enough to care. So if you go this route, you’re doing it for looks and fun flushing options for guests to get confused over…not savings. Eventually this may change if a toilet can take care of all of your needs by only using one (1) gallon of water total (at the moment though the efficient toilets only save you a few gallons in comparison but your still using up close to 10 or more so it just doesn’t pay off. Side Note: However, if you are not “replacing” toilets but say that you are building a new house and buying toilets from scratch, as long as the price falls into the same range as normal toilets, it wouldn’t hurt to buy them to get a small drop in water usage from the start.

I’ll try to think of some other things and add it to the list at a later time when/if it comes to mind.

NOW, on to the do-it-yourself projects! These projects are useful in saving electricity, gas and water. These are things most people can do themselves or call a friend or family member with experience.  They are both affordable to the average home owner and allow you to see savings quickly.

  • Washer/Dryer (Effective: Yes)

    • LG Washer and DryerIf you have an older washer/dryer, it is good to replace them with newer front-loading models that are rated well for energy savings. They can save in electricity, gas and water. The difference can also be significant (around 40-60%).
    • Simply consider the size (how many clothes a unit can hold; measured in cubic feet) you need and then match it to your budget. They are relatively easy to install if you have experience so that’s why I included it in this section. Save your money, and do it yourself! (or have a friend or family member stop by to do it).
    • Good brands include LG, Samsung, and Whirlpool. They make really efficient models that are reliable and come with a lot of great features for washing/drying anything you can imagine (ie, increased sanitation features, steam options, etc). A number of professionals (repair technicians) have shared their concern recently for current GM and Maytag models so I find it harder to recommend them at the moment.
    • Also, when possible, try to run your laundry during the evening when it is cooler outside. This helps to decrease the amount of resources spent by your utility since some utilities charge you less during off-peak hours. On top of that, always make sure that once or twice a year or so you pull your dryer out and clean out it’s exhaust chute. Make sure there isn’t a major lint buildup anywhere. A buildup could lead to reduced efficiency and of course fire, so you want to avoid that no matter the type of dryer you are using.
  • Ceiling Fans (Effective: Yes)

    • WindwardIVFanIf you’re like most people, you have ceiling fans in your house to help push air around and take some stress off of the A/C. The problem however, is that pretty much all older fans and most of the newer fans you find at your average store consume a lot of electricity to run (sometimes 100-125+watts), else your are sacrificing efficiency for a little less energy consumption making the fan useless.
    • Replace your ceiling fans with low-e models that can both push a lot of air AND save on energy, while at the same time not making any noise or wobbling all over the place. This doesn’t mean rush down to your local FANCO and get over-priced fans driven by fancy brushless (DC) motors. They are way too pricey and by the time you see the savings, you could have gone through 5-10 of the lower priced consumer fans for the same cost.
    • You can still shop for a normal ceiling fan and spend small, save a ton of energy, avoid shaking/wobbling, avoid noise and move a lot of air.
    • One very popular example is the Hampton Bay Windward IV Ceiling Fan. The price generally ranges between $180-220 depending on current popularity spikes. The reviews for the fan are mediocre due to the poor installation instructions that come with it but if you also read the same reviews, you will find others who spell it out for you in great detail so you can install the fan without breaking a sweat. Once you have the installation details down, the fan rates high review-wise – pushes a lot of air for it’s size – it’s super quiet – it doesn’t wiggle, wobble and shake all over the place – it’s weight beats out most of the other normal consumer fans – and most importantly, it only uses between 11 to 50 or so watts of electricity (depending on what mode it is in). It comes with a remote with thermostat built in so you can let it control itself automatically for changing speeds and even shutting off when not needed. At it’s highest setting, it consumes little power and all you can hear is the massive amount of wind that it moves around. It also has a very nice ultra-modern contemporary look to it allowing it to fit into a most themed rooms (both artsy/fartsy, futuristic/high-tech looking and even manly for bachelors to feel comfortable with as well). Our rating? 8/10 (or 4.5/5 Stars-4.5)
  • Light Bulbs (Effective: Oh Yes!)

    • lightbulbsPretty much the most popular step to saving energy is swapping our your light bulbs with energy efficient CFL or LED light bulbs. LED bulbs are still working their way down in price and aren’t too effective just yet but when they do, CFL will have to move over. Until then, CFL has been and will be the way to go. There are some developing technologies as well that show promise such as “FIPEL” bulbs but they are still either in concept or development phase and won’t see the market for awhile. When they do, and if they live up to their promises, you can bet we will be writing a very detailed review about them when that time comes.
    • Energy efficient light bulbs will help reduce the cost of electricity used for lighting your house by 75-80% on average with current bulbs available. For example, CFL and LED light bulbs that replace a normal 100-watt incandescent bulb, typically only use 19-23 watts to put out the same amount of light. That’s a 77-81% savings in each bulb you replace. 60-watt bulbs are replaced with 9-13 watts alternatives and so forth. So count how many bulbs you have running through your house and add up all the watts. Then strike about 75% off of that, and you will find your minimum average savings.
    • This method is also the most cost effective, usually getting your money back in savings within the first year alone (if you go CFL).
    • You can also replace your outdoor lantern/sconce lights on the front and rear of your house with photosensitive lights that automatically power off during the day and come back on at night (also known as dusk-to-dawn sensors). On top of that, make sure the one you choose is LED or can support CFL bulbs and you will save that much more. Obviously, if you already have light fixtures out there and don’t need the dusk-to-dawn sensor, simply throw in some CFL bulbs to replace the old ones with. You don’t have to buy a completely new light just for the bulb.
  • Insulation (Effective: Oh Yes!)

    • insulationThe people that build your home are always going to look for the best path to saving money. That’s why when you buy a new home being built by a local developer (generally selected from a number of model homes they have on display) that promises energy efficient homes that are “Energy Star certified” …they don’t mention that it’s based on 5 year old (or so) certification requirements. For example, one of the employees here just had a brand new home built for them. It finished this year (build time was 3 months), but had a paper stapled to the wall saying it was energy certified……”based on the  2009 International Energy Conservation Code”. A lot has changed since 2009. They didn’t even use CFL light bulbs in all of the built in fixtures (ie, down spots, bathrooms, etc).
    • So you can bet the insulation being used in your home is going to be based on the minimum required by code. So energy efficiency hasn’t nearly been met based on what your house comes with. In their minds, they can tell you that due to their insulation, your home is very efficient. Of course they base that on comparing it against not having insulation at all (which isn’t realistic to begin with…due to code).
    • “Insulation levels are specified by R-Value. R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. The higher the R-Value the better the thermal performance of the insulation.” (Energy Star)
    • SO! Jump into buying insulation for your home yourself and applying it everywhere that you have access to the insides of your walls, floors and ceilings. Climb up into your crawl spaces or attics. Anywhere where you can see the bare studs that hold up your walls, ceiling and floors. Lay the insulation between such studs if none is present (some state codes don’t require insulation at all in certain areas such as between floors of a house), and if insulation is present, layer it up! Give it whatever those walls, ceilings and floors can take.
      • It is important to wear long sleeves, pants, gloves, safety glasses and a mask that is certified for fiberglass. This helps reduce the chance of itching, rash or getting fibers in your eyes, nose or mouth.
    • For hard to reach areas (like floors and ceilings that are tight crawl spaces with air ducts running through out, or sealed walls), you will have to call a local contractor. They will have a really good solution where they will blow insulation into the walls. It is very efficient,  especially when adding to what’s already there and filling in the tiniest of spaces, and usually pretty affordable.
      • The only disadvantage for blown in solutions would be sealed walls. They would have to create holes in the wall between every stud pair for them to get their blower solution through. That is going to require a repair of each and every hole by a drywall specialist (they have to patch the hole, re-texture it if wall is textured, and repaint it).
    • Here is a breakdown of currently recommended insulation levels taken from Energy Star’s website based on where you live:
      InsulationEnergyStarRecommended

      Click on the image to enlarge

    • Also, as a bonus tip, for rooms that have four walls (ie, den, media room, theater, etc) that you plan to be making a lot of noise in, use a layer of Roxul Rockboard 60 Acoustic bat underneath the normal fiberglass insulation layer(s). In other words lay it directly against your drywall, and then insulate on top of it like normal. Placement is so that it doesn’t compress the normal insulation down and take away from it’s properties (because the rockboard is going to be heavier). Function, is to help better sound proof the room while also providing additional insulation for energy savings. Make sure to put it in the ceiling or under the floor (aka inside the roof below) as well if you have rooms above it or below it. You simply cut whatever strips you need from each sheet and another bonus is that it isn’t going to be itchy and messy like normal insulation.
      • Bonus tip continued…An even better solution (can get pricey though) if you want to sound proof a room is to double the drywall (sheet rock). Which means using two layers of drywall vs the normal single later. This is also good for your external walls as well in case you live in a noisy area due to car, train or air traffic. Best way to pull it off is to “glue” the second layer of drywall to the first. This prevents using nails and screws as sound can pass/leak easier through such so you want to avoid metals as much as possible when layering up.  The type of glue you want to use is called Green Glue, and it is bought as tubes or buckets all depending on how much you need. The reviews on this stuff are sadly misinterpreted due to bad reviews left by people not using it properly (example, one person applied it to plywood and then screwed everything down, breaking one of the main rules of avoiding using screws and other types of metals). Green Glue works best when layering multiple layers of drywall to each other and avoiding ALL use of screws or nails.
  • Solar Screens (Effective: Yes)

    • solarscreensThis option is only best visited if you have built out general window screens before or know someone that has the experience.
    • Not to be mixed up with solar panels, solar screens are dense screens you place around all your windows to help reduce the amount of sun coming through, while maintaining vision when looking out the window. You may have seen these on other houses. Unlike normal screens, they cover the entire window frame (not just one side). When it comes to windows, it is BEST to first upgrade the window itself (as mentioned above), then decide if you need these or not. Most professionals will tell you it’s not necessary to use solar screens if you have good windows but would agree that it never hurts to have both. They also don’t void your window’s warranty like wraps do (as long as you remember not to drill them into the window frame itself vs the stucco/brick/wood/whatever around it). Stay away from wraps or any other “stick on” solution that applies to the glass as it will immediately void your warranties on your windows (important to avoid that as most of these newer windows are coming with fancy lifetime warranties).
    • Solar screens consist of the screen material, and the frame (and related tools to cut the frame material, the screens and press it into the frame with). You start off by measuring your window to see how big the frame will have to be to fully cover it and make it outside of the window frame by an inch or so. Some window frames actually come with a track for solar screens so that you don’t have to screw them into place. You simply cut and shape your frame together using the required tools, cut your screen size from a roll of the screen material, use a special tool to apply the screen to the frame, mount it to the window and move on to the next. You can even get fancy by making rows/columns throughout to create patterned frames.
    • They can help reduce heat and help maintain inside temperatures. If you have the fancy new windows, you are only adding to the protection of each window and lowering your bill that much more.
    • There are many companies that offer this as a service so if you can’t figure it out to do it yourself and don’t know anyone who can, you can always resort to calling a local contractor. It’s obviously going to be more expensive but it’s important you do it right the first time and safely.
  • Smart Thermostats (Effective: Yes)

    • Nest ThermostatThermostats have grown smarter in the years. Not only can you program them with schedules, but now you can control them via mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc) while your not even home. Not only that, but now they are smart enough to learn when you are home and when you are not. To help better control the A/C and heater in times that they aren’t needed but you forget to turn it off, update your schedule or to remotely log in to see if you forgot. They can also learn to adjust your A/C or heater more or less aggressively based on outdoor temperatures.
    • One example of this is the Nest Learning Thermostat. Not only can it do all of these things but it also looks cool (especially if your a lover of apple products and their approach to design), and is extremely easy to control (the physical controls are very user friendly and minimal). It senses when you are home and memorizes patterns based on your usage and reacts accordingly. It is very self-learning.
    • You also have the ecobee Smart Thermostat and the Honeywell Prestige 2.0 HD Comfort System Kit. Some or all of these can also be controlled (or at least somewhat controlled) via home automation systems such as X10 and the newly popular Z-Wave technology which some of us have indeed been playing with and deeply enjoy (in fact I’ll mention it again a little further). Another final example would be the Honeywell Z-Wave Compatible Thermostat which is made specially for Z-Wave networks.
  • Low Flow Shower and Sink Heads (Effective: Yes)

    • showerheadKeep in mind, water is usually one of your least expensive bills (unless you have a pool…and a Jacuzzi…and spa jets in your tub……you get the point). However everywhere you can save helps, and these solutions still help with a good % of that smaller number.
    • Low flow water efficient shower and sink  heads help to reduce the usage of water being spent by adding air to the water coming out of the spout. This helps to increase flow pressure without having to increase the water amount to do it. Air as we all know…is free (at least, until big brother finds a way to tax that too). These devices are measured by GPM (Gallons per minute) and the lower the number is obviously best.
    • For shower heads, 1.25 to 1.75 GPM is generally the best to stick to depending on how wide of a coverage you need for the water.
    • FaucetAeratorFor sink heads (known as a faucet aerator), 0.5 GPM is typically good. They are very easy to install as all you normally have to do is unscrew the original head off the faucet and screw the new one in it’s place (done). The new head will usually have a form of filter and a rubber gasket inside it, so you want to keep it all together and not lose any part.
  • Rain Smart Sprinkler Controllers (Effective: Sort of)

    • SmartSprinklersThese are pretty cool, unless you have nothing but drip systems…then they are more cool than they are efficient due to price. If you have a full out sprinkler system though, these can be quite useful. They are able to detect if it is raining outside based on weather data and disable your sprinklers from going off so that your plants and lawn can benefit from nature vs your water bill.
    • You can go with a more simple solution by getting the Rain Bird Smart Controller which will look a lot like your old one. It come with a sensor you position outside and connect to it and combines that with a national database of information to help control your sprinklers from going off in the rain. It can also detect shorts and other troubles in your zone wiring and shut those zones down from use if needed.
    • OR, you can take the high tech road and try out the RainMachine Smart Wifi Irrigation Controller which has a full color touch-screen display, wifi (as it’s title explains) and even has an app for your iOS or Android device. It will also save you from watering outside during the rain but also comes with the higher price tag of around a $100 more. Honestly they will both save you the same amount of grief so it’s up to you if you want to spend a little extra cash for the bells and whistles and slightly increased user friendliness.
  • Tankless Water Heaters (Effective: Yes)

    • TanklessHeaterThis is another commodity growing quickly in popularity. Normally you have a water heater that sits in the garage with a massive tank filled with water. It constantly heats the water throughout the day to make sure it is hot when you are ready to use it. It takes up space and risks leaking causing your whole garage to flood out.
    • The Tankless Water Heater is meant to solve all of those issues. It doesn’t constantly maintain heat as it doesn’t collect and maintain any water. It takes up little space by hanging up on the wall and doesn’t activate until you turn on a hot water tap somewhere in the house. It works by heating water instantly on demand via a furnace built inside. Water is pushed through it, heated instantly and delivered to your faucet. This means it won’t be using any gas unless you ask for the water. They are also supposed to last longer.
    • Let’s say you leave town for a week. Your tankless heat won’t be heating anything, it won’t contain a bunch of water that’s just sitting there getting nasty and since it’s not holding water, it’s not going to spring a leak and welcome you back with a flooded garage.
    • Here are some examples of tankless heaters for your home (most of which are very popular brands and models).
    • It is recommended that you stick to natural gas fed units and stay away from electric ones as most (if not all) electric fed tankless heaters will counter the entire idea of saving energy and money. The natural gas ones save, the electric ones waste (they only offer them as a luxury item for those with a lot of money that don’t care about saving anything).
    • It is also recommended that you rely on a professional contractor to install it in your home as it does install differently than a normal tank water heater. Also, if your buying a brand new home that is being built by a developer, they usually offer this as an option (if not, ask).
  • Home Automation (Effective: Oh Yes!)

    • zwaveHome automation systems are becoming increasingly effective and quite popular. These system take all of your devices and throw them into your home network via Wi-Fi so that you don’t have to run network cables everywhere. This also bring their cost down as you don’t have to hire anyone to run all those cables through the walls. Most of the related devices are battery controlled or just need to be nearby a plug so they can get power.
    • You can automate a lot of things such as switching lights off, turning the A/C on and off, and powering down outlets (so your devices aren’t trickling power during standby). All of which can also be controlled without even being in the home. A lot of new alarm companies can also integrate their systems into automation controllers so that you can run your scenes automatically when you arm the house. The nest thermostat mentioned earlier is one of those devices that work well with it as well (even more so) as the Honeywell Z-Wave Compatible Thermostat for networks that support Z-Wave protocol.
    • There are multiple types of networks to go with, including Z-Wave, Samsung’s SmartThings and Lutron. All you need is a hub (the brain) and you are ready to start adding compatible devices, building our your modular network of smart gadgets. Going into greater detail about these hubs, like Z-Wave technology is an article in it’s own. For example, you can find a great article about Z-Wave written by this wonderful user who has gone out of there way to spell things out.

 

We may add additional information to this article in the future.

9/5/2013 – Already updated with some extra intel and some formatting improvements to make things easier on the eyes. More to come I am sure as this is a wonderful topic with many options of improvement.

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