Not to depress anyone, but do you remember the cost of gasoline just 15 years ago? In 1998, drivers spent about a dollar for a gallon of gas. Prices have skyrocketed so much since then that we’re all nostalgic for the good old days of the ’90s.
A similar price increase is underway with the cost of home energy. A growing population combined with a lack of new power plants to support it caused the Texas Public Utility Commission to raise the wholesale electricity price cap by 50 percent last summer. No one can predict exactly how the energy market will be affected in the long term by this cap increase, but if there is one tried-and-true business practice, it is that cost will be passed on to the consumer.
Naturally, one way to fight rising home energy costs is to make your home more energy efficient. There are countless ways to do this, but what really works? You could call an energy expert to audit your house and tell you what you need to do, but many times these “experts” are simply salespeople in disguise — there to tell you what you need, which happens to be everything they sell.
If you’d rather not replace your windows, at least go through and seal up any drafty ones.
Here are some of the most effective things you can do to make your home more energy efficient before those high bills of the summer starts rolling in:
One of the biggest ways homes lose energy, especially older houses, is through leaky windows. If your windows resemble a sieve, you may want to think about replacing them.
In Texas, the most important factor in a window is the solar heat gain coefficient. The lower the SHGC, the less heat gets transferred through. If you’ve ever lived through a Texas summer, you know that you want the SHGC as low as you can get it. You can also stop heat transfer with solar screens, but they obstruct your view as well as darken your home.
If you’d rather not replace your windows, at least go through and seal up any drafty ones. Not only will windows without proper seals let air in, they will also let air-conditioned air out. While you’re at it, you might as well weather-strip your doors too.
Ever stepped into your attic during the summer? Yuck. That gross space sits above your head all year long and can push your energy costs up, which is why it's important to have a properly insulated attic. There are several ways to insulate your attic space; the key is which method is best for you.
The easiest and least expensive way to insulate your attic is spray-on cellulose insulation. This is what most attics have, but the question is if you have enough. In a hot zone like Dallas, you want to make sure you have at least 15 inches of insulation in your attic.
One popular form of attic insulation these days is radiant barrier, but there have been several questions about whether it makes enough difference in your energy bill to be worth the extra cost. Most experts agree that a foil radiant barrier is much more effective than a spray-on barrier. If you decide to get radiant barrier, make sure whoever is installing it knows what they’re doing since it won’t work nearly as well if it isn’t installed correctly.
In a hot zone like Dallas, you want to make sure you have at least 15 inches of insulation in your attic.
Then there is spray foam. Foam is considered possibly even more effective the radiant barrier, but the issue is again cost.
One thing to consider when getting attic insulation is the location of your interior air conditioning unit. Many homes have the unit up in the attic, which the dumbest possible place because it’s in the hottest part of the house. If you have a unit located in your attic, it's probably worth the cost of radiant barrier or spray foam.
Along with insulating your attic, make sure there is enough airflow going through the space. This not only circulates hot air from your attic, but it also keeps the attic space dry. You don’t want moisture in your attic, because that can lead to mold and mildew in your home.
There are several ways to ventilate your attic space, but the key is airflow. That means you need to pull new air into your attic and old air out. Generally, the way to do this is to have soffit vents on the eves of your home and some sort of vent, turbine or fan at the top of the attic. Make sure your vents aren’t obstructed and your fans or turbines are actually working.
If you’re handy with a tool kit, you can install soffit vents yourself. If you’re like me and are just as capable of ending up in the emergency room as you are successfully completing a home project with power tools, hire someone do it for you.
How old is your air conditioning unit? Just because it’s running doesn’t mean it’s working properly. Obviously, replacing an entire air-conditioning unit is costly. Before you go that route, check that your HVAC system is the right size. Homes often have the wrong size unit.
If your energy bills are incredibly high, your HVAC system could be the culprit.
Secondly, you want to check the SEER rating on your unit. This measures how efficient it is. As of 2006, the federal government mandates the air conditioners need to have a SEER rating of at least a 13. The older a unit gets, the less efficient it gets. If your summer energy bills are incredibly high, your HVAC system could be the culprit.
If you can’t spend the money needed to change out your system, check your ducts to make sure there aren’t any leaks that lets your air conditioning seep out before it gets to its destination. And always make sure you change out your air filters every few months. Not only will that make your unit run more effectively, it will also get rid of allergens in the air.
Most people know that CFL and LED light bulbs use less energy than the regular incandescent counterparts. According to energystar.gov, you save an average of $6 per year, per light bulb with efficient lighting. That may not sound like a lot, but go through and count all of the light bulbs in your home.
If you find 20 light bulbs to change out, you should save $120 a year. Remember that you get what you pay for, so make sure the bulbs your buy are the best fit for your home. Don’t just buy up the cheapest bulbs because you could sacrifice quality in doing so.
Little things that help
Check your electrical outlets and light switches on your exterior walls. Often times they leak, so put foam gaskets behind them. It’s inexpensive and it can help. If you have an attic hatch that is located inside of your house, you might want to install an attic tent so that your air conditioning doesn’t go up into your attic.
Finally, check your hot water heater. If your water gets extremely hot, to the point where you can’t stand touching it, turn down the water heater because you’re paying to heat water to a temperature you aren’t even using.
Paying your monthly energy bill will never be pleasant, but by making your home more energy efficient you can avoid having a downright scary moment when you open your mailbox.
Brad Seal is a former energy auditor who specialized in creating energy efficient green homes.