Planning Energy Improvements

As you think about how to reduce your environmental impact and energy bills, it can be hard to know where the best opportunities lie. The Home Energy Checklist for Action provides one way to prioritize some common home improvements. It is also useful to understand how your appliances stack up in terms of energy use. Keep in mind that, although heating and cooling consume by far the most energy, your best opportunities for reducing these pieces of the pie may come not from replacing equipment but from improving the efficiency of the building itself.

Understanding Energy Use in Your Home | Setting Priorities | ​Understanding ENERGY STAR | Understanding EnergyGuide | Quality, Reliability, and Availability 

Understanding Energy Use in Your Home

To understand energy use in your home, you need information beyond what you find on your typical electricity or gas bill. To get a real handle on what’s happening in your home, it’s helpful to know how much energy different products use and how your home’s energy use changes over the course of the day and in response to changes in your behavior. Power meters and power use monitors can help.

A power meter is a device that you plug in between the appliance and the wall socket. You can watch the electricity use change as the appliance goes in and out of power modes. In addition to giving instant readings of power use, several of these devices will record energy consumption over the course of an hour, day, week, or even a year; you can download the data to your computer and see graphs of the trends. Use a power meter to find your leading sources of energy consumption. This will help you to prioritize which products to unplug or to replace. Two models to look for are the Kill A Watt™ and the Watts Up? Pro Power Meter.

For an even more sophisticated, big-picture look at your home’s real-time electricity use, you might also consider purchasing a power use monitor. These devices are programmed to read information from your electric meter and communicate the real-time changes in use through an easy-to-read screen. The best monitors are wireless and portable. When your clothes dryer turns on, you’ll see the degree to which your electricity use spikes. When nothing is operating, you’ll see what the background buzz of electric use is in your house, and try to track down the top appliances to be unplugged. Plus, power meters and real-time monitors can be a way to get your family involved and interested in saving energy. Some good monitors to look for are The Energy Detective (TED), the Power Cost Monitor, and the Cent-A-Meter.

While it’s very helpful to see how much energy your home is using and which products and behaviors are the biggest culprits in your home energy use, how do you know whether you’re an energy hog or an energy miser? To put your energy use in context, it’s valuable to know how your energy use compares to that of your neighbors or your broader community. A number of utilities around the country are offering this information to customers in the form of reports showing how your energy use stacks up and offering recommendations for energy improvements.

A growing number of online tools are also available to help you understand and manage your energy use; some even offer rewards for taking action and contests to make the whole process more fun. In addition to these tools, a large number of utilities are working to give customers new ways to download detailed energy use data in customized formats through the Green Button program. Check with your utility for more information and to encourage them to offer more of these tools and services.

Setting Priorities

The decision to make certain energy improvements can be obvious — if you have a broken appliance and need to replace it, for example, use the SmarterHouse website to make a smart purchase decision. But there may be other important priorities for your house that you are unaware of. If this is the case, you may want to perform a quick self-audit, or go ahead and hire a professional to help find the most cost-effective improvements (see the building envelope section).

Some of the more involved energy improvements mentioned here, such as replacing windows and insulating, make the most sense when you are planning other remodeling work. If you are going to extend a wall out to enlarge your kitchen or put in a larger dormer for a master bedroom expansion, by all means boost energy efficiency at the same time. Rebuild walls with high insulation levels. Put in high-performance insulating windows.

As long as you’re ripping out walls, take advantage of the mess and go a little further, boosting the efficiency of some of the adjoining walls and windows as well. With a small addition, some of this work might even pay for itself right away if it means, for example, that you can get by without adding a separate heating system or expanding your current heat distribution system.

Understanding ENERGY STAR

Once you’ve identified your high-priority areas and are ready to look for new products, look for the ENERGY STAR. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recognize the local and global environmental significance of energy-efficient products. Working in voluntary cooperation with manufacturers and retailers, these agencies have created a distinctive ENERGY STAR label to help consumers identify energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, appliances, computers, lighting, and home electronics. Many homebuilders offer ENERGY STAR homes, which include a variety of energy-efficient features and equipment. ENERGY STAR homes are at least 15% more energy efficient than the current International Energy Conservation Code. You can even get an ENERGY STAR-qualified whole-house retrofit to optimize your overall home energy performance.

Beyond ENERGY STAR

ENERGY STAR is designed to highlight the top 25% of covered products based on energy efficiency. For many products, there is a significant difference between the top 5% or 10% and the top 25%— the very best performers can save additional energy and money (and water in the case of clothes washers and dishwashers) compared to other ENERGY STAR-qualified models. For other products, there is no ENERGY STAR program.

ENERGY STAR is also working to help consumers identify the most efficient models in several ENERGY STAR product categories. The ENERGY STAR Most Efficient designation highlights the top-performing ENERGY STAR models for a given year. For 2015, the program is recognizing Most Efficient refrigerators, clothes washers, dishwashers, ceiling fans, ventilation fans, televisions, computer monitors, windows, and heating and cooling equipment.

Understanding EnergyGuide Labels

Federal law requires that EnergyGuide labels be placed on all new refrigerators, freezers, water heaters, dishwashers, clothes washers, televisions, room air conditioners, central air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces and boilers. These labels are bright yellow with black lettering. The EnergyGuide label can be useful when evaluating how the specific product you are considering compares to other products of the same type. EnergyGuide labels are not required on kitchen ranges, microwave ovens, clothes dryers, portable space heaters, and light fixtures. For these products, look for the energy-conserving features discussed throughout this website. When purchasing light bulbs, consult the FTC Lighting Facts label found on all packages.

The main feature of the label is a line graph showing how the energy cost or energy efficiency of that particular model compares with other models on the market of comparable size and type. You will see a range of lowest to highest. A word of caution — the ranges shown on the labels are not updated frequently, and manufacturers are constantly introducing new appliances.

For refrigerators, freezers, water heaters, dishwashers, clothes washers, televisions, and room air conditioners, the range shows estimated annual energy cost based on typical usage and national average electricity and/or natural gas prices. The most efficient models will have labels showing energy cost (represented by the downward-pointing triangle) at or near the left-hand end of the range. The annual estimated energy consumption is also provided in kWh/year for electricity or therms/year for gas. The label shows the usage and energy price assumptions used to calculate the reported energy use and operating cost.

For central air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces and boilers, the range is not annual energy cost, but rather the energy efficiency ratings for these products (SEER, HSPF & SEER, and AFUE, respectively).

Therefore, labels on the most efficient models will show the efficiency rating at or near the right-hand end of the range since the higher the rating the more efficient the product. To estimate your operating costs for these products, refer to the manufacturer’s fact sheets available from the seller or installer.

Quality, Reliability, and Availability

When shopping for major home appliances, you may want to call several stores or dealers to check the price and availability of different models that you find on the ENERGY STAR website or other listing. You can ask the salesperson for information about the efficiency of each model, but be aware that he or she may not know very much about energy performance. Refer to SmarterHouse when you shop to make sure the appliances contain recommended energy-efficient features. Many retailers are beginning to include more energy use information on the products they carry on their websites.

Also keep in mind that energy performance is not the only consideration you should use when selecting home appliances. Consumers must consider how effectively the appliances perform their primary functions — cleaning dishes, keeping food cold, etc. — as well as how much energy they use in doing it. For example, you wouldn’t consider buying a dishwasher that didn’t get your dishes clean, even if it used just half as much energy. This website does not pretend to be a comprehensive review of product reliability or performance, or a guide to convenience features found in these products; there are other sources for that information. It is worth noting, however, that energy-efficient appliances are generally high-quality products due to the better materials and components used in their construction.

For the latest innovative energy-saving technologies, consider doing some additional research using the growing list of newsletters and journals (both online and print) that cover green products.