Consumer GuidesElectrical, Telephone & Data

Saving on Your Utility Bill

Many of us are sending more and more of our hard-earned money to utility companies each year to keep our homes comfortable. Some organizations offer advice on how to save energy, but many are either focused on narrow issues or are more concerned about selling us a new product.

Let’s try and make sense of all the advice and offer a little perspective.

For example, you might have read somewhere that you can save energy by keeping the lids on pots when you’re cooking. While certainly true, it is a very minor item in your overall energy consumption picture. Besides, some people swear it does strange things to pasta!

The bottom line is that you should certainly adopt some of the recommended habits that save you a little energy here and there, but don’t feel pressured if a particular change doesn’t suit you for some reason. After all, you pay for the energy you consume. It’s your choice.

In the long run, you’ll do better to pay attention to larger energy-saving opportunities.

Here are answers to some of the more important questions about saving money on energy:

Q: We keep running into ads for high efficiency heat pumps, but I have friends at work who swear that heat pumps don’t heat well. Do they work or not?

A: They work, but they aren’t the best choice for everyone. During the summer, heat pumps work like air conditioners. During the winter the process is reversed and the equipment heats the home. It’s a good option for a new home because the one machine does double-duty for both heating and cooling. If you already have a furnace or central air conditioning, the double-duty advantage doesn’t mean much, because you’ll still end up with more than one piece of equipment.

When building a new home, ask about a ground- or water-source heat pump. While initially expensive, they cost very little to run and can save you a lot of money in the long run.

Complaints about heat pumps typically have to do with their overall capacity to heat. On the coldest days, they simply can’t keep up. For this reason, most people need a back-up system using gas, oil or expensive baseboard heat.

Another problem is that the air coming out of the vents is not as warm as with other systems. To the human skin, the slightly warmed air can actually feel cold.

Both problems are often aggravated by improper installation. In fact, some electric company studies have shown that half of all heat pumps are installed improperly. To make things worse, high-efficiency heat pumps are also finicky. When not properly adjusted, their much-vaunted efficiency is elusive. That’s why it’s critical to have heat pumps installed and maintained properly.

Q: I had the amount of insulation in my attic increased back in the 1970s. Should I be adding more now?

A: While more insulation will often reduce your energy bills, the question is whether the savings will make up for the cost of beefing up the insulation. The answer depends on how much insulation you already have and how expensive it is to heat your home. For example, gas heat is far less expensive than electric baseboard heat. This means that in a house with electric baseboard heat, it makes sense to insulate more, because the relative savings the insulation will yield will be larger. Another factor is the cost of insulating. If you are going to install the insulation yourself, you’ll recover your costs more quickly.

When adding insulation on your own, make sure you don’t obstruct any air vents in the roof or along the eaves. Covering these vents is a leading cause of destructive ice dams. In general, most people find it economical to insulate their attics to an “R” value of 30. For standard fiberglass insulation, that translates to a thickness of about 9 or 10 inches.

Q: We have a 20-year-old gas furnace that seems to work fine. Would we be better off with one of those new high efficiency units?

A: Probably not. Unfortunately, the same technologies that make furnaces more efficient also make them more complex. The more complicated the machinery and controls become, the more they tend to require expensive repairs. In addition, despite being more expensive, the new units are not likely to last nearly as long as the older models. So, while high efficiency units consume less energy per season, those savings are offset by the much higher cost-per-year of the unit itself.

One way to analyze the problem is to calculate the “payback period.” You simply take the cost of the new unit and divide that by the amount of energy costs it saves you each year. For example, a new $2000 furnace that saves you $300 per year in energy costs would have a payback period of 2000/300 or just shy of seven years.

In some cases, the payback period is pretty close to the life expectancy of the new unit. When that’s the case, there is no compelling reason to buy a new unit. By the time you break even, it will be time to get a new unit again.

If all those numbers make your head spin, relax. In general, the time to buy a new unit is when your old unit requires major repairs costing several hundred dollars.

There is, however, one other important consideration with older units—they can develop cracks that allow fumes to escape into the house. The best way to protect yourself is to have the unit inspected every year or two and also to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

Q: My attic is fully insulated, but I have no insulation in my basement. Heat rises, so it doesn’t seem like a problem. Am I right?

A: No. Uninsulated basement walls are big energy wasters. But fortunately, unfinished basements are often the easiest part of the home to insulate. Four inches of fiberglass insulation may well save you 10 percent off your annual heating bill.

Q: Many of my friends have replaced their traditional incandescent light bulbs with florescent bulbs. Is this really worthwhile?

A: In general, yes. While the florescent bulbs cost more up front, they last at least 10 times longer that the old bulbs. They save you money and hassle in three ways. First, they use far less energy to produce about the same amount of light. Second, they last so long that it’ll typically be many years before you have to worry about changing the bulb. That means fewer acrobatic feats on ladders and stools. For fixtures where you hire others to change the bulb, the new bulbs will save you big bucks.

Finally, those long-lasting bulbs also mean you don’t have to keep shelling out for replacement bulbs. You’ll no longer have to keep as many bulbs on hand, and you won’t have to make several trips a year to buy more bulbs.

To maximize savings, try to buy the florescent bulbs on sale, or use the discount coupons that are sometimes offered by the electrical utilities.

Two shortcomings of florescent bulbs have also been licked in recent years. One problem was that you couldn’t use them with dimmers. But now, some manufacturers are offering special florescent bulbs that are dimmer-compatible.

Another problem is color. Florescent bulbs give off a different light—one that can be especially unflattering to skin tones. Some of the newer bulbs are tinted to mimic more closely the softer tones of traditional bulbs.

Q: I regularly get calls from people trying to sell me new thermal replacement windows. Will they really save enough energy to pay for themselves?

A: If your old windows are exceptionally drafty, replacement windows may pay for themselves. But for most homes, the energy savings will not, in and of themselves, justify the high cost of replacement windows.

However, when you add in reduced maintenance costs (painting, glazing), better looks and increased resale value, the new windows usually make sound economic sense. Another factor is that new windows are much easier to open. Think about your current windows. If there were a fire, how easy would it be for every member of your household to open the window nearest where they sleep? In many houses, the older windows just don’t work anymore.

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