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Energy Costs Have You Seeing Red? Here’s How to Save Some Money

Bruce Harley is passionate about helping people save money.

Specifically, Bruce Harley is passionate about telling people how they can save money on their energy bills. And with many heating bills expected to hit record highs this winter, the tips Harley shares in his new book, "Cut Your Energy Bills Now," couldn’t be more timely.

Harley has written a step-by-step how-to manual that promises homeowners150 Smart Ways to Save Money and Make Your Home More Comfortable & Green (Taunton Press, December 2008). That’s a boost for your pocketbook and for the environment at the same time. And it’s not just about heating costs. There are sections on light fixtures, toilets, what kind of refrigerator to buy and much more.

Harley draws from his almost 20 years of experience in the field of energy-efficient building systems. Today Harley is technical director of the Conservation Services Group, a nonprofit association in Westborough, Mass., but he is usually found working out of his home in Stamford, Vt., where he practices what he preaches—in an energy-efficient solar-electric house he designed and built himself.

He recently talked with theAARP Bulletin about steps just about anyone can take to lower energy costs.

Q. What is the single most effective way to lower energy bills?

A. This is tough, because it will vary from home to home, and it will vary by the resources available. But the action that is most likely to yield substantial energy savings is getting a comprehensive home assessment, or energy audit, by a qualified person, and then acting on the recommendations for the most effective improvements. This is likely to cost some money, but the assessment can usually tailor recommendations to provide reasonably fast paybacks or, in the case of a small loan, positive cash flow for the homeowner starting in the first year.

There are also many small things that together can add up to big savings: putting appliances and electronics on power strips to turn off when they’re not in use, turning down water heater temperatures, setting back thermostats, putting plastic on windows and taking out or covering window air conditioners in winter.

Unfortunately the biggest heating-cooling wasters are uninsulated, leaky homes with leaky attic ducts, and old, inefficient equipment. Dealing with those requires some real work, but it also tends to be very cost-effective. We always emphasize looking at the house as a system, and dealing with the whole system is what gives you the best results.

Q. Don’t many utility companies offer free energy audits?

A. Yes, free or low-cost audits are common. However, they rarely lead to work that results in real savings. If the auditor is in your house for 90 minutes or less and only gives you a brief report about the possibilities, then you should get something better. A comprehensive audit should look at the whole house and provide very specific recommendations and priorities, typically along with referrals to qualified contractors who can do the work. A good auditor will typically conduct a “blower door” test for house leaks, a duct leakage test and/or an infrared scan to look for missing insulation. They should look at your heating and water heating equipment. Look for auditors certified by RESNET or the Building Performance Institute (BPI), and ask lots of questions.

Q. Your book borrows the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s definition of a house: a “machine for living.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

A. Like a car, a home consists of a lot of parts that need to work together in order to do their job. Instead of moving you around, the home’s job is to keep you safe, dry, healthy and comfortable. But like a car, the home system uses energy, produces waste, requires maintenance, and—most to the point—its thousands of parts have to be assembled properly and work smoothly to provide what you need in a way that makes a home economical to own and operate. And like a car, there’s a lot more complexity inside than meets the eye. That’s why, with energy assessments and audits, it’s so important to act on the recommendations. You don’t save money if someone tells you what’s wrong but you don’t change anything.

Q. You say that the more energy a family has been using, the more opportunities there are for savings. How much can someone really expect to save without sacrificing a reasonable comfort level in winter and in summer?

A. It really depends on the circumstances. But if a house has serious problems with hidden air and/or duct leaks, and has little or no insulation, there can be a 20 to 50 percent saving on heating and cooling with greatly improved comfort at the same time. “Waste” is not always a lifestyle or consumption issue. Although we certainly can save a lot by changing our lifestyles, many significant things require no sacrifice at all.

Take this example: In the 1970s refrigerators were less efficient than ever before or since. If you still have an avocado or burnt-orange fridge, replacing it with a new [model with an Energy Star rating] will use less than half the electricity annually and will likely include some nice newer features—like slide-out racks, drawer-freezer on the bottom and so on. And the new refrigerator may actually pay for itself in a reasonable time—provided you don’t keep the old one running out in the garage!

Also, many water heaters are terribly inefficient, and you don’t have to go without hot water to replace your heater with one that saves 10 to 40 percent on your water-heating costs.

Q. How does saving the environment intersect with saving dollars and cents?

A. The biggest single environmental impact we have as consumers is the energy we use, and energy used is directly tied to our energy bills. Of course, that includes transportation as well as housing, but nationally, buildings contribute more carbon than transportation does. Saving energy has a direct benefit by reducing the cost of living, and the benefits for the environment are automatic byproducts of those efforts.

Q. These days, many communities, including some specifically for older residents, prohibit outdoor clotheslines. What’s your take on that?

A. Two things. First, I think it’s a wretched commentary about our values that people should be forced to use energy unnecessarily for any such simple daily tasks. Second, you can always set up drying racks indoors. My used dryer has never been hooked up and makes a nice work shelf. We use wooden drying racks for most of the year for convenience.

Q. What is the biggest energy mistake people make in their homes?

A. It’s thinking that they have already done all that they can when they haven’t.

Another mistake is thinking that electric heaters will save them money; theoretically that might be true if they really shut down most of the house and lived in one or two rooms. But most people can’t—or won’t—really do that, since they have to heat their house to a certain point just to keep the pipes from freezing. Electric heaters that you plug in are all the same; they are all exactly 100 percent efficient, no more or no less—but electricity is an expensive fuel.

Q. What are the top 10 electricity-guzzling home appliances?

A. Pool heaters and pumps are the first two, followed by refrigerators, freezers, clothes dryers, waterbed heaters, room air conditioners, lighting, “other” and aquariums. Electric range tops, dishwashers and indoor electric space heaters are numbers 11 to 13. Of course, the first couple of these are not appliances. Of all of them, the electric range is the only one you can’t really do much about—other than cooking less, which is not really an option because eating out isn’t cheaper and won’t save energy either!

Read More: Excerpt from "Cut Your Energy Bills Now"