Ted’s Top Tips to Help You Beat the Heat!

Record temperatures are creating uncomfortable conditions all over. Here in Pennsylvania, we’re expecting near 100F temperatures for much of this week, while Chicago just suffered through a heat index of 115F!

Along with high temperatures come big utility bills because of all the air conditioner usage. In this post, I’ll give you some tips for how you can “beat the heat” without breaking the bank!

Why Things Get Hot

If you’ve read any of my posts, you know that I like explaining things because I want you to understand WHY things occur. Once you know why, you can figure out solutions yourself.

Why do we use umbrellas to block the Sun? We all know that it’s cooler in the shade because the sun radiates heat. So if you can block the solar radiation, you can block a lot of the heat that it brings.

Even if you’re in the shade, it can get darned hot! If you’re sitting in your house, you’re being shaded by the roof – no direct sun is hitting you yet you’re still hot. Why? Because there’s still a lot of heat coming in – from the hot roof, the walls, sun shining through the windows and hot air entering the house.

There are other things that heat your house in the summer. Some obvious, some unexpected. You probably know that conventional light bulbs put out a lot of heat. In fact, each light bulb acts like a little space heater. But did you know that every appliance in your home, from your television to your refrigerator, is also pumping heat into the house 24-hours a day? And your water heater, especially if you have an oil boiler for your hot water – those throw off a ton of heat!

Quick recap -houses get hot in the summer because:

  • Solar radiation heats objects in direct sunlight, like your roof
  • Hot air carries heat directly into your house
  • Hot air and solar radiation heat your walls
  • Solar radiation enters through windows and skylights
  • Appliances and lights produce waste heat that enters your home

Beat the Heat!

Now that you know what causes your house to get hot, let’s see what you can do about it. I’ll start with the easy ones and work up to ideas that require more changes or greater investments.

  1. Wear light clothes. Ok, this one is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to write it! But simple things like shorts, a lightweight shirt and no socks make a big difference to your comfort level.
  2. Drink ice water or other no-calorie drinks. Cold drinks help reduce your body core temperature, that’s good. But don’t drink beer or soda or eat ice-cream and expect to stay cold. Anything with calories adds energy to your body, and that energy makes you less comfortable in hot weather.
  3. Use fans to circulate air around you, but only when you’re in the room. Fans cool you by speeding the evaporation of sweat and by carrying heat away from your body. But when you leave the room, turn off the fans or you’ll be wasting electricity AND adding heat to the air because the fan motor gets hot. Remember – fans do not cool the air!
  4. Turn up the temperature on your air conditioner. A slight increase in the temperature setting of your AC results in a significant reduction in the amount it runs. For example, raising the setting from 72 to 76 can reduce the energy use by 25%. Use a fan and turn up the temperature and you’ll see the savings on your next utility bill.
  5. Raise the temperature on your AC when you’re not at home. There’s a lot of debate on this one, but let me put it to rest – you save considerable energy by turning up your AC when you’re not at home. Yes, you have to crank the AC when you get home, but there is definitely a savings – you will save much more energy doing this than leaving the AC at a constant temperature all the time.
  6. Open the windows at night only if it’s cool and dry. Natural cooling at night is a great way to cool the house only when the air is dry. A big use of air conditioning is to remove moisture from the air so if you open your windows at night or in the morning when it’s really humid out, you’re filling your home with water. After that, your air conditioner has to work overtime to remove that moisture. So resist the temptation to open up the house when the humidity is high.
  7. Turn off lights when you’re not in the room. This is always good advice, but it makes even more sense when it’s hot out. Remember, those lights are little space heaters. The longer they burn, the more your air conditioner has to run to remove the heat that the lights put out.
  8. Replace lights with high-efficiency bulbs. This requires a little investment but it pays off year round. Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs are much more efficient than conventional bulbs mostly because they convert more of the electricity into light. I’ve written more than enough about the direct energy savings from these bulbs. Stop making excuses and replace those bulbs!
  9. Install a new fridge. And recycle your old refrigerator. The old energy hogs throw off an amazing amount of heat. A new, super-efficient fridge can pay for itself in a few years and it will heat your house less.
  10. Add insulation to your attic. If you don’t have at least a foot of insulation in your attic, you’re probably under-insulated. If you have a house from before the 1980’s, chances are, you only have a few inches of insulation. Going from 3 inches to the recommended 14″ of insulation (maybe R-9 to R-42) will reduce the amount of heat moving from your attic into your home by about 80%. A good insulation job is something you’ll appreciate year round.
  11. Shade your windows. Remember, a big reason things get hot is because of sunlight. Ideally, you don’t want direct sunlight entering the windows. The best way is by using trees or bushes to shade the windows. If that’s not possible, exterior awnings do a great job, though many people object to the aesthetics. If that’s you, then get interior cellular shades to block the direct light.
  12. Get windows with heat reflective coatings.  In recent years, window coatings have gotten truly amazing. A good window can block 90% of the heat from entering from the sunlight. This also protects your carpets from damaging UV radiation. An added benefit is that these same windows will hold in more heat during the winter and they’ll be less drafty. So replacing old, leaky, single-glazed windows with tight, low-e, double or triple-glazed windows can make a big difference in your comfort year round.
  13. Install a white-roof. Depending on your climate and your current insulation, this may or may not make sense. If you have lots of insulation, than the amount of heat coming in from your roof can make very little difference. But if you’re changing your roof anyway, get a reflective roof. This can substantially reduce attic temperatures and therefore the heat entering your home.
  14. Install a more efficient air conditioner. New air conditioning is usually my last recommendation. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and depending on where you live, you’ll may only use it a few months per year. However, if you have an old unit, it’s probably operating at less than SEER 10, so switching to a new SEER 18 unit can cut your AC bills nearly in half.

Even an Energy Auditor can get Bitten by an Energy Hog

I am embarrassed! I was recently bitten by an “energy hog” – an unwanted waster of energy hiding in the deepest recesses of my home.

He snuck in last week while I was using a lot of energy for opening/cleaning my pool. You see, at that time, I was running a big pool pump 24 hours a day, so naturally, my daily electrical usage increased. But I didn’t expect it to increase so much!

As part of the pool cleaning, you have to flush out a lot of water to clean the filter. Then, you have to add hundreds of gallons of water back into the pool. Since I’m on well water, that means running the well pump a lot! And if you’ve read my other articles, you know that pumps are notorious for using lots of energy. So the combination of the pool pump plus two well pumps adds up to big energy use. Continue reading

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.

How to prevent your boiler from stealing your money

Energy Kinetics System 2000

Energy Kinetics System 2000

In the last article, “Is your boiler stealing your money?“, I discussed why most boilers are ripping you off. Contrary to what almost every HVAC saleperson or tech will tell you, your boiler does not operate at 84% efficiency. It doesn’t operate at 80%! Heck, much of the year, it doesn’t operate at 50% efficiency!

To review, the reasons for this include:

  • High operating temperature
  • Minimal insulation
  • Infrequent use
  • → Outrageously high standby losses

In this article, I’m going to discuss how to do it right. But if you’re too lazy to read the entire article, stop right here and go to the Energy Kinetics website.

But first, I’m going to save you $10,000….

Continue reading

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.