DIY Energy Audit, Part 2: Why Do Heat Pumps (sometimes) Cost a Fortune to Run?

After the first article, Matt collected his utility bills and other background information we need to get started. Here it is:

“Colonial 3,300 square feet. 3 adults one child. 2 Electric Heat Pumps: Large one in basement is Payne, Model Number PF1MNB048; Smaller one in mud room for rooms above garage has no name. Just has large number SA11694 and Model Number BCS2M18C00NA1P-1. Thermostat at 72 now and 70 in summer. Consumption Feb 2013 through Jan 2014 – kWh 5800, 4530, 2815, 1684, 1533, 2346, 1334, 1568, 1719, 3023, 5833, 7349”

I don’t even have to make a spreadsheet for this one!

What this tells us

We have a small-medium family in an average sized development home – no red-flags there.

However, the next items contain the keys to solving this mystery.

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How to Increase the Energy Efficiency of Your Existing Home

This post by an energy auditor in central PA summarizes a lot of the information required to make your home more energy efficient, all in one spot. It’s like you took all my posts to date and wrapped it up into a single article! Definitely worth a skim.

For those of your unfamiliar with ChrisMartenson.com, Chris is a scientist who, several years ago, started investigating peak-oil – the fact that at some point, you can’t extract oil from the Earth any faster, and from there, it’s downhill. As he investigated it, he got more and more worried, because pretty much everything we do depends upon having essentially an unlimited supply of oil.

Chris is passionate about this cause. So passionate that he produced a series of videos and is traveling the world giving lectures about how to prepare. At first it seems nutty, especially if you’re of the mindset that “technology will always find a solution”, but if you listen carefully and do your own research, you may find yourself buying in to what he says.

I started following him a few years ago, and combined what he said with what I learned from various investment newsletters and other sources. That gave me an advanced warning to shift from classical stocks into metals and mining a few years ago, before the market tanked and mining stocks skyrocketed.

Whether you agree with him or not, his “Crash Course” is well worth viewing as it provides additional insights that you can use to better understand the complex, resource limited world in which we’re now living.

What does it mean if your fiberglass insulation is black?

Insulation filters the air leaks from your house, showing you signs of energy loss

You might have noticed some black insulation in your attic or maybe around the perimeter of your basement, where the house rests on the foundation. What does this mean? Is it moldy? Wet? Why is the insulation black?

In fact, black insulation is the energy auditor’s best friend because it tells us where the problems are. In just a few minutes of looking around the attic, you can find the most serious air leaks from the house. Here’s why…

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5 Bright Ideas for Saving Energy – #1 – Know thy use

When I give talks or do energy audits, people want to know the “best” ideas for saving energy. You know – the things that cut your energy bills in half and don’t cost much to implement.

Interestingly, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I’ve based my career on trying to give out as much practical information as possible. The theory is, if it’s easy and you can afford to do it, you’re much more likely to actually improve your home. This is as opposed to the idealist’s approach which promotes only doing things if you’re going to do them perfectly.

Without boring your further, let’s dive into five things that you can do to save energy in a meaningful way.

1: Know how to read your utility bill

By far the most important step to take is to learn how you and your home are using energy. This lets you prioritize your energy saving measures in a way that is most meaningful. I’ve seen people spend weeks caulking ares of their home that make absolutely no difference while leaving huge problems untouched.

I always recommend getting an energy audit as a starting point. However, the purpose of this article is not to get you to buy energy audits, it’s to teach you how you can do things yourself, so I’m going to skip that method.

The first thing is to look at your own utility bill. I can show you spreadsheets showing how other homes act, but there’s nothing like looking at your own utility bill.

Almost every electric bill has a graph like this one, showing a year or 13 months of usage data.

The vertical axis shows how much energy is used each month. In this case, it’s scaled from 0 to 2700 kilo-watt hours, or kWh.

Definition: a kWh is the amount of energy used by ten, 100 watt light bulbs in one hour.  This is the same as one, 1000 watt heating pad. If it adds up to 1000 watts and it runs for one hour, it uses 1 kWh per hour.

I hope that’s clear, because everything about electricity consumption depends upon you understanding what a kWh is.

On the horizontal axis is months. In this case, it runs from September of 2008 to September of 2009. This lets you compare this year’s bill for September with last year’s bill. This is very handy since it shows you at a glance if anything has changed dramatically since last year.

What does this graph tell us?

Look at the pattern of usage. The graph shows similar electrical consumption during September, October, May, June and August. Each of these has a total usage of about 450 kWh for the month or about 15 kWh per day. I’d include July, but that actually shows a bit less consumption. Maybe the homeowner went on vacation for a week in July?

What do these months have in common? The answer is – you don’t heat your house in these months. Now, look at the heating months. (Side note: this is from a home in Eastern Pennsylvania. This is a very typical heating consumption curve.)

The graph shows electric usage increasing in November, December, peaking in January, then dropping in February, March, and April. This makes sense too since January is consistently cold, so you’d expect the most usage when it’s cold. So everything makes sense.

Take a step back. What does this graph say about the house? It says that the occupant is using electric heating in an amount that is related to the outdoor temperature.

I’ll tell you a secret – this house is heated with oil, so somehow, the owner was paying a double heating bill, once for electric and once for oil. So just looking at the electric bill tells me that there’s something very wrong with this home. After all, if the home is heated with oil, why are they paying for an extra 2,000 kWh in January? That’s $320 in added electric costs (in this area). Over the course of the entire winter, they’re using 5,200 kWh, or about $830!

Winter usage spikes usually means electric heating

We’re learning an awful lot by looking at one part of an electric bill. Without even looking at the house, you know that there’s something happening here that’s dramatically increasing their electric bills in the winter. Common sense shows us that the usage corresponds to winter temperatures so it’s extremely likely that they’re using electric space heaters somewhere in their home.

It’s also telling us that they don’t use air conditioning during the summer. If they did, the graph would jump up during July and August, which can be pretty hot and humid in these parts.

Baseline electrical usage

Go back to our earlier observation that most of the non-heating months show an electric consumption of 450 kWh per month. The average usage during the low-usage months corresponds to the baseline electrical usage. This is the amount used for things excluding seasonal loads like heating and air conditioning.

For most homes, the baseline electrical usage includes electricity used for televisions/electronics, electric lighting, clothes washers/dryers, computers, dishwashers, electric water heaters, etc. – things you use all year long.

In this particular case, they use 450 kWh per month, or 15 kWh per day. This is comparatively low. Most homes I measure have 25-50 kWh per day consumption as the baseline, so the graph also tells us that there is nothing that is excessively sucking down electricity in the home during the non-heating months.

Getting More Specific

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the broad usage patterns. What about specific consumption? Suppose we saw something that caught our eye on the graph, like high baseline usage? What then?

Recall in the definition of kWh I wrote: “a kWh is the amount of energy used by ten, 100 watt light bulbs in one hour.” I defined it that way because it frames an abstract term “kilowatt-hour” in a way that anybody can wrap their brain around. Ten 100 watt lightbulbs burning for one hour. Easy!

So, a home that uses 15 kWh in a day is using as much as those ten lightbulbs would burn during the waking hours. That’s not bad considering it includes all the washing, drying, dishes, television, etc.

On the other hand, if you found that the home had a baseline of 45 kWh, that would be like 30 bulbs burning all day – ouch! In fact, when I see a high baseline electrical usage, one of the first things that I’ll do will be to walk around the house, basically counting lightbulbs.

Obvious Problems

Quite often, these homes will be newer ones filled with recessed lights in the kitchen, living and family rooms. I’ll point at the kitchen ceiling, filled with 15 brightly burning flood lights and ask – “how long are these on during a typical day?” The answer is usually “oh, we keep those on from the time we wake up until we all go to sleep.”

At this point, my face will usually show disapproval (I’m really bad at hiding my emotions!) and I will say something like “do you know that those 15 lights, each 90 watts, are consuming about 20 kWh per day? That’s more than the ENTIRE household consumption of many homes?”

Anyway, I digress. The point should be well taken. Sometimes, the cause of your high consumption is blindingly obvious!

Not-so Obvious Problems

That was an easy (but very common) problem. What about the harder ones?

Well, sometimes, you just have to measure things, using a kill-a-watt meter like the one shown at the top of this post. This is a simple to use electric meter that any homeowner can use to measure the load of things that you plug in. For example, if you want to learn how much electricity that old fridge in the garage is using, just plug it in for a day and you’ll get a very accurate measurement.

Side note: occasionally, I’ll post links like this to items in the Ted’s Tips Amazon store. I’ve put together this store to hold all the items that I refer to on this blog so that you’ll be able to find them in one convenient place. Originally, I was linking to a lot of different sites, but then people would ask me where they could purchase them. Since I’ve been an Amazon user for years and know them to be extremely reliable and have low costs, I figured it was easiest to go this route. Anything you purchase there helps support this site. Thanks!

Back to measurements…

What Things Should You Measure?

You could spend months measuring everything in your house, but I’ll tell you where to start. These are the biggies. The proverbial “energy hogs.”

  • Refrigerators, especially old ones or those in garages during the summer
  • Dehumidifiers, especially those in damp basements or crawlspaces
  • Space heaters
  • Frequently used Halogen lamps
  • Anything with a heater in it that gets used a lot
  • Entertainment centers (especially large screen TV’s)
  • Large stereo amplifiers that get used many hours a day
  • Large gaming computer rigs

You should also make note of the following light fixtures. Keep track of the wattage of the bulbs and the length of time they burn each day.

  • Outdoor lights, especially bright flood-lights
  • Common area lights that are on most of the time (kitchen, living/family room, hallways)

I’m going to stop here for the day. This is more than enough to get you started doing your own home electrical consumption audit. If you follow these suggestions, learn how to read your utility bills and figure out how much energy you’re using, you’re well on your way to lowering your electric bill, maybe substantially. So get cracking – the watts are-a-wasting.

Energy Efficiency 101 – What’s an energy audit?

If you’ve ever looked into energy efficiency, you’ve probably heard about energy audits. But what is an energy audit? What does it involves? Why should you get one? How much does it cost?

I’ll try to touch on all these topics, and more, in this posting, but if there’s anything I miss, please ask a question at “Ask Ted” and I’ll be sure to answer!

What is an energy audit?

This is a tough question to answer. The problem is, if you ask a bunch of us this question, you’ll get lots of different answers. It’s part of the problem – it’s become a marketing phrase that people put in their ads so they can sell you windows, insulation and other services.

So I’ll give you  my definition of an energy audit.

A proper energy audit is a bottom to top analysis of your home, inside and out. It’s kind of like a general physical for your home. The goal is to find how well constructed your home is from an energy, health and comfort perspective. Is it properly insulated? Is there any sign of water intrusion? How well are the heating and cooling systems installed? Are there drafts? Are the electric bills in line with expectations? How about other heating fuels (gas, propane or oil)?

A complete energy audit will usually include a blower-door test and a detailed thermal imaging (also called infrared) scan. I say usually, because sometimes the conditions aren’t appropriate for these tests. For example, during the spring and fall, the temperatures are usually too moderate for useful thermal imaging.

If it sounds like a pretty comprehensive analysis – it is! It typically takes me a minimum of three hours to go through the process on a small home and most of the time it’s a four-plus hour process. And to do it right, it can be pretty unpleasant.

In order to do an energy audit properly, every room and space in and around the house has to be visually inspected. That includes crawling around in the attic spaces, if they’re accessible and the basement and crawlspaces. In fact, on my jobs, I’ll spend more time in the attic and basement than anywhere else in the house because those areas have the most impact on the overall performance of your home.

What’s NOT an energy audit?

A warning – there are a lot of unscrupulous contractors advertising energy audits for free or for a very low cost, like $99-$199. They do this because they’re trying to sell you something, usually windows, insulation or a new heating system. This is like going to the brake shop and asking them to tell you if you need new brakes for your car. Of course you do! If you don’t get new brakes, you and your family’s life will be in danger! Blah, blah, blah.

So if some guy (they’re almost always guys) with a green business card tries to sell you on a cheap energy audit, send them packing. There’s virtually no chance that they’re going to do a proper job or even have the equipment to do a proper job. And they certainly won’t have the training or background.

Here are some things to look for when you’re interviewing people/companies to do an energy audit:

  • How long have they been doing this type of work?
  • How many homes have they analyzed?
  • Is this their primary line of work?
  • What organizations are they part of?
  • Do they profit by selling the work they recommend?
  • Can they send you a real sample report they’ve done for someone else?
  • Can they provide a half dozen references?

I would be particularly sensitive to whether this is their primary line of work and whether they’re getting kickbacks for selling you other services, for obvious reasons.

Note that, on occasion, contractors did give me money for sending clients their way as a way of thanking me. But it wasn’t a formal arrangement – it’s not like I only sent work their way because they were paying me. I provided my clients with a list of several contractors whom I knew to do high quality work. You’ll have to play this one by ear. You’ll know pretty quickly whether you can trust your auditor.

Also, insist on getting a sample report from a real client. If they make noises about not being able to do so because of privacy, scratch them off your list. We’re not lawyers or doctors – who cares if somebody sees your energy audit report? How hard is it to remove someone’s name and address from a report? If they’re not willing to go that far to win your business, how hard are they going to work once you hire them?