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Illustration of an energy auditor
LIVING GREEN

Hey, Mr. Energy Man: Lower my bills!

The whole family is wearing extra sweaters and socks and you still can't manage to keep the utility bills under control. Who you gonna call?

by Laura Wright

Jeff Page pulls up to the house in a white Ford Taurus station wagon, pops the back hatch, and collects what seems like an extraordinary number of toolboxes for a guy who's here to check for drafty windows. Arms full, he follows a flagstone path around the garage and up to the front door of Katie and Nick Abstoss's rustic-looking ranch house. Katie lets him in, one baby in her arms, another belted into a high chair in the kitchen. He sets down his gear in the entryway and surveys the scene.

"How old is it?" he asks. From his vantage point, he can see nearly all of the family's living space. Scanning the open kitchen and dining area, his eyes fix on the wall of windows that is the far side of the living room.

"It was built in 1949," Katie says. "But we just finished redoing the kitchen, and there was an addition about 10 years ago."

Page, still looking around, now appears to be distracted by something he's spotted on the ceiling. "You say you just gutted this whole kitchen area?"

"In November," Katie replies as Page peels off a navy blue parka emblazoned with the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star logo.

Page is an energy auditor, but following him into dank, spiderwebbed corners and allergy-aggravating crawl spaces, you might conclude that "detective" is a more apt title. His employer, Competitive Resources, is a subcontractor for Connecticut Light and Power (CL&P), the utility company that provides electricity to the Abstoss family and their Stamford, Connecticut, neighbors. As part of CL&P's state-mandated effort to reduce electricity demand, the utility pays about two-thirds of the $200 fee Page charges for his sleuthing and diagnostic services. During his three-hour house call, Page will search every inch of the house for things like hidden drafts, broken joints in air vents, and improper appliance settings, jotting down notes and measurements. He'll take these numbers back to his office and plug them into a computer model that will help him identify where the Abstoss's house is losing energy.

Although older homes tend to be far less efficient than newer ones, homes built within the last two or three decades still stand to benefit from a home energy audit. It's not unheard-of for an auditor to come across a section of wall that was improperly insulated, or simply not insulated at all. And as a house settles, new cracks and drafts appear. Even brand-new double-paned windows are no better than old double-panes if the seal between the frame and the wall is not airtight. Houses are as different as their occupants, and as a result, the amount of energy that an auditor can help you save varies from about 10 percent to 50 percent. But those savings add up on a national scale when you consider that 21 percent of all U.S. energy consumption takes place at home.

It's early January now and Page is booked solid. Customers wait weeks for an appointment with him, and they wait several more for his diagnostic report to arrive in the mail. Most call him in to help figure out why their energy bills are so high, but others simply want to conserve. The Abstosses haven't lived in their house long enough to know what they'll spend on energy over the course of a year, but in their first month they burned through three-quarters of their 750-gallon tank of heating oil and racked up an electric bill that topped $300.

Clipboard and tool chest in hand, Page asks to be taken to the basement. Katie leads him down the stairs and through a door into a small room that was once a bedroom and now houses Nick's weight bench and a rack of Katie's dresses. The house is set into a hillside, and glass doors lead directly outside; it's freezing in here. Through another door Page finds the furnace and hot-water heater. He pulls out an indestructible-looking flashlight and gets down to business.

Kneeling on the concrete floor, Page finds the furnace's model number and, happily, an EnergyGuide label that tells him how much energy the unit uses. The furnace is a little bigger than the 2,700-square-foot house needs -- but that's the case in most homes, Page says as he climbs to his feet. Next up: the water heater, installed in 1989. He opens a small hatch in the heater's casing, revealing several layers of foam -- a good amount of insulation, he says -- and a thermostat.

"How's your water temperature?" he asks.

"It's hot," Katie says. "Scalding."

"It's set at 140 degrees," Page says. "These things are factory-set to that temperature, so this has never been adjusted. That's hotter than necessary, especially with small children in the house. With a dishwasher you can't make it too cool -- you'd probably want it at 130."

Katie worries that they won't have enough hot water, but Page tells her that she can always turn the temperature up. The water heater is the single largest electricity user in the house, so they're wasting a lot of energy by maintaining 80 gallons of water at a constant 140 degrees.

Page rummages around in the laundry room and behind the oil tank, where he finds a couple of dehumidifiers. He jots down the model number for each appliance, then heads outside to check out the central air-conditioning unit. After writing down a few more numbers, he spots a crawl space beneath the addition that Katie mentioned. He climbs in and is pleased to find it well insulated.


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Save a BTU and a Buck, Too


For energy-saving tips, including links to state and local websites that certify home energy auditors and an online energy consumption calculator, visit the U.S. Department of Energy's consumer guide. There you'll find guidelines for conducting your own energy audit if professional services aren't available in your area.

Many energy-efficiency home improvements qualify for tax credits; these include replacing old windows, adding insulation, and sealing air ducts. Go to energytaxincentives.org for more information.



More Living Green


For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.






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Illustration: Francisco Cacares

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council