More than half of the houses people live in today were designed and built in an era of cheap energy.
Energy efficiency wasn’t a high priority until the mid-1970s, when fuel prices surged.
As a result, many of today’s homes are energy hogs.
With fuel prices at an all-time high, that means those inefficient designs are costing people dearly.
Some government estimates say that up to half of the energy consumed by a typical U.S. household is wasted. Even newer homes are not as energy efficient as they could be.
One way to identify how much is wasted in a house and how that can be corrected is through an “energy audit,” which is available to Rhode Island residents for free.
There are two programs, both of which are financed through charges on the bills of Narragansett Electric customers. The EnergyWise program is offered to any resident, while the Weatherization program is for low-income residents who are eligible for fuel assistance.
Both programs provide similar services — identifying ways to cut energy use. But the Weatherization program, which also receives federal financing, pays to make some of the improvements. Those can include installing insulation, replacing a refrigerator or putting in new windows.
Regardless of which program a household is eligible for, some of the improvements suggested by energy auditors cost nothing, or very little, and can save a lot of money.
The Providence Journal accompanied a team of energy auditors from the Westbay Community Action Program and the State Energy Office recently as they scoured a one-story ranch house in Coventry, looking for wasted heat.
When they were finished, they estimated that the improvements they suggested could cut the homeowner’s energy costs by 30 percent.
The auditors typically address the biggest energy eaters: the furnace, the refrigerator, light bulbs, air leaks and drafts, and areas that need insulating, according to Ralph L. Groves Jr., who heads the state’s weatherization program.
And the energy sleuths suggest changes to a homeowner’s lifestyle that will save money, such as turning off a computer when not in use.
Here are the key areas in a typical home.
–Furnace. Making sure the furnace and the water heater are cleaned, tuned up and operating efficiently is one of the most important things a homeowner can do, Groves said.
You do that by hiring a licensed heating technician who has the proper equipment to do an efficiency test. Many oil companies offer an annual tune-up and cleaning as part of a service contract.
The auditors also carry an electronic device that measures efficiency.
“If we evaluate a unit and we start out with 70 percent, in most cases we can bring that up to the high 70s or low 80s,” Groves said.
That small change can save a substantial amount of money.
Take a home that uses 1,000 gallons of heating oil a year with a furnace at 70-percent efficiency. If the furnace were at 80 percent efficiency, it would need to burn only 875 gallons a year to keep the house just as warm. At the state’s average price last week of $2.679 gallon for fuel oil that would save 14 percent, or $335 a year.
–Refrigerator: A refrigerator is usually the biggest consumer of electricity in a house, Groves said, since it runs constantly.
And many older models are very inefficient. The auditors connect a device to a refrigerator’s plug that measures how much electricity the unit uses. If it’s above a certain threshold, homeowners may be eligible for rebates of up to $200 to buy a new, more efficient refrigerator.
Under the low-income Weatherization program, participants may be able to get the refrigerator replaced for free.
Refrigerators labeled “Energy Star” are designed with better insulation and more efficient compressors, Groves said. In the case of the Coventry home, he said a new refrigerator would save the homeowner about $100 a year in electricity costs.
For refrigerators that don’t need replacing, the auditors check and adjust the temperatures of the cooling section and the freezer section. The ideal temperature for the refrigerator is 38 degrees to 40 degrees, he said, and freezers should be at 0 degrees. Many are set colder than they need to be, he said, which wastes energy.
“Just by simple temperature adjustments, we can save them, in many cases, $4 or $5 or month.”
–Lighting: After the refrigerator, most of a typical household’s energy costs go toward lighting.
One of the easiest changes to make is to swap out traditional incandescent light bulbs for more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.
These bulbs come in several shapes, including some with frosted glass domes that make them look like regular bulbs. Groves said they last much longer than traditional bulbs — six to nine years — and use a fraction of the electricity.
A 75-watt bulb can be replaced with one that uses only 20 watts of electricity and provides the same amount of light, he said. That’s almost a 75-percent reduction in electricity costs for lighting.
Both energy audit programs in Rhode Island provide some compact fluorescent bulbs for free. They can also be found in discount stores, such as Building 19 or Benny’s, for as little as 50 cents to $2 each.
Narragansett Electric estimates that replacing five lights with compact fluorescent bulbs will save $8 a month, or $96 a year.
Groves also said that small nightlights are wasteful, using perhaps $2 a month in electricity. Smaller, flat nightlights are available that use only pennies per year, he said.
–Air leaks, drafts: A big source of energy loss the auditors look for are air leaks around windows and doors, as well as other openings in basements or attics.
The inspectors find the leaks by placing a huge fan in an outside doorway that sucks air out of the house. Drafts and other leaks can then be felt easily.
Groves said it’s important to lock windows closed in the winter to reduce leakage. “When you lock that window, you are pulling two sashes together and sealing off the area,” he said. Sash locks, if they are missing from the windows, can be purchased at hardware stores for $1 or less, he said.
Storm windows should be in place as well, and homeowners should caulk or place weatherstripping around window leaks.
As for putting plastic covering over windows, Groves said that the weatherization auditors never do that, and they suggest that homeowners be cautious about doing so.
The main concern is that the plastic could make it more difficult to escape in a fire, he said. “They wouldn’t be able to get out quickly because they now have to tear plastic, and plastic is very difficult to tear.
“Does it work as preventing air leakage? Of course,” Groves said. “But you have to weigh out the differences between an actual safety risk versus what you’re going to save in energy.”
Other sources of air leaks are less obvious, Groves said, including openings in basement ceilings, such as those for plumbing or for a chimney, that should be closed with insulation. Often those openings are channeled to the attic and suck heat out of the house.
In the Coventry home, the auditors found a major air leak around a pull-down trap door to the attic, which they said should be sealed.
–Insulation: Houses constructed before the mid-1970s, Groves said, were commonly built without insulation. And if there was insulation in the walls or attic, it was often inadequate.
In the Coventry house, the inspectors found only 2 to 3 inches of insulation covering half the attic. They recommended putting 9 inches on the bare side and adding 6 inches on top of the covered side. That would raise the insulation factor to an R90. The higher the R value, the better it insulates.
The insulation in the attic should be installed on the floor, rather than in the rafters, Groves said.
Also, don’t overstuff fiberglass insulation, he said, as compressing it gets rid of the air pockets and actually lowers the insulating capacity.
Groves said the state Energy Office has a booklet that explains how insulation should be installed.
Hot-water heating system pipes exposed in a basement can be insulated to save heat as well, he said. Foam-like tubular insulation is sold at home-improvement stores and can be installed simply by slipping it on the pipes.
Pipes from the hot water heater can be insulated this way as well, Groves said, adding that he sees the best results with insulating the first 6 feet of piping from the water heater.