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Making an Old Home Green
I bought our house in 1988, a simple little two-bedroom house on a small lot in Studio City, California. Given my financial position at the time, it was a great move that has also turned out to be great for my career—I’ve never felt pressured to take a role I didn’t love just so I could make a huge mortgage payment. Of course, by Hollywood standards, this house is a shack. But by world standards, as I’m sure you know, it is a palace.
Retrofitting an Old House vs. Building New
Few of us have the resources to build a more energy-efficient house from the ground up. I didn’t have the money to do that, and I didn’t have the will to do that. Plus I liked my house.
So, I set out to make my home as environmentally sound as I could in every aspect. I knew that with insulation, a drought-tolerant garden, double-pane windows, an energy-saving thermostat, and solar panels I eventually put on the roof, I could make this a much more efficient structure.
Indeed, by the time I was done, I had made my home nearly as energy efficient as a new one. And you can do the same for your home, wherever you live.
The key to saving energy in your home is controlling energy use. Clearly, there are many ways to do this, from simple changes in what you do and how you do it to more-intense home improvement projects. Because so much of the energy used in your home is used to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer, we’ll start with ways you can control your heating and cooling needs.
And there’s another important point I want to mention right up front: You don’t have to own your home to make many of these changes. There’s a lot you can do even if you’re renting, or if you own a condominium or another type of structure where you might be limited as to the kinds of changes you can make.
So why bother making these changes? Because they’ll make your home more energy efficient, which means you’ll be helping the environment by saving natural resources. It also means you’ll be helping yourself and saving money—sometimes really big money. So no matter where you live right now, you can make some changes that will make a real difference.
A Fresh Filter
Perhaps the easiest thing you can do today is change the air filter for your heating and air-conditioning system. Many people think, “Filter? There’s a filter?” If that’s you, yours probably hasn’t been changed in a while.
Most central heating and air-conditioning systems have a filter at the air intake—on a wall or on the ceiling—and many window and wall-unit air conditioners have a filter element on the front that needs to be changed, too.
I change mine regularly, sometimes six times a year, because we have two cats and a dog, and pet hair is always blowing around. I check the air inlet for my heating and air-conditioning system regularly and often realize, “Whoa! It’s time to change this thing again.”
Why is changing the filter so important? Because when the filter gets dusty or dirty or clogged, it’s harder for your system to pull air through it. That means your system has to work harder, and it has to stay on longer in order to do the same amount of work.
So changing that filter regularly is the low-hanging fruit that you can pick right away. And it doesn’t matter if you have central heat and air or a window- or wall-mount air conditioner. Changing the filter is a great way to make your home more energy efficient.
Beyond that, changing the filter will help if anyone in your family suffers from allergies. You can even go a step further and choose an air filter that’s designed especially to trap allergens. If odors are a problem in your home, there are filters designed to trap them, too.
An Energy-Saving Thermostat
Once you’ve got the air moving more efficiently through your heating and cooling system, think about how you regulate the temperature of that air.
It requires a huge amount of energy—energy that you pay for in the form of your electric, oil, or gas bills—to raise or lower the heat of your home by even a few degrees. Controlling these costs, and the amount of energy you use, means controlling the temperature both when you’re at home and when you’re away. This is the magic of an energy-saving thermostat.
Most people simply turn their heating and air-conditioning system on and off when they want to be warmer or colder. Some even leave the system on when they leave the house, so that it will be the right temperature when they return. Maybe you leave the heat running at your preferred temperature all night long—even though you’re sleeping under a blanket or a comforter—because you want the house to be nice and warm when you get up in the morning.
But why spend all that money, and waste all that energy, keeping your house comfortable when you’re not there, or when you can simply add another blanket to your bed at night?
If you have central heating or central air-conditioning or both, you can install and use a programmable thermostat instead of an old “set the temperature and it’s either on or off” thermostat. This way, you can save energy and money and have your house at the right temperature when you get home, when you wake up in the morning, and when you’re asleep.
You will have to invest some money up front; an energy-saving thermostat starts at about $65. But it will pay for itself in heating and cooling savings in a year or less if you use all of its features.
Programming Your New Thermostat
- Make sure you program the energy-saving thermostat to shut down the heat or air-conditioning automatically when you leave for work or for school, and to turn it back on 20 to 30 minutes before you expect to return.
- You’ll also want to program the thermostat to reduce the temperature when you’re heating the house (or to increase the temperature when you’re cooling it) about 30 to 60 minutes after you normally turn in for the night. Once you’re under the covers and asleep, you won’t require as much heating or even cooling. (You’d be surprised how much less cooling is necessary to keep you comfortable at night. And you can always open a window in the summer if it’s cooler outside at night.) Again, you just program the thermostat to return to “awake” mode 20 to 30 minutes before your alarm goes off in the morning.
- You don’t need to worry about being uncomfortable if you’re home all day on the weekend, either. Energy-saving thermostats let you program different settings for weekdays and weekends.
- If you plan on going out of town, make sure you override your normal programming and shut down everything until you return. The caveat here is that if you’re in a very cold climate and you’re worried about your pipes freezing, don’t let the temp fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. And you might not want to shut the system down completely if you’re leaving pets in your home. Even so, you can see there’s tremendous potential for energy savings here.
Temperatures change day to day, so don’t be afraid to adjust your program settings, daily if need be, to maximize the efficiency of your system. I check mine every time I leave the house.
Choosing a Comfortable Temperature
It’s one thing to talk about programming the thermostat. Everybody says, “Sure, makes sense.” It’s another thing entirely to try to reach an agreement with the people living in your home about what temperature is comfortable.
Let me talk about the temperature in my house before Rachelle and after Rachelle. When I was single, I would keep the house at 65 to 68 degrees in the winter and 78 in the summer. I didn’t think twice about simply wearing a sweater or sweatshirt in the winter and changing into a cotton T-shirt and shorts in the summer.
There is no amount of thermostat programming that can replace good ol’ shutting down the heating and cooling completely when the temperatures outside and inside your home are within your own personal comfort zone. Well, that ain’t gonna fly anymore in my home. I have a wife and a daughter who require considerably more creature comfort than I did when living on my own.
If you have a really old heating and air-conditioning unit, you might want to consider purchasing a new Energy Star system. It’s going to be a big investment, but you’re going to make that money back in a few years because the units are so much more efficient now, and use so much less power. The compressors are more efficient, the fans are more efficient, everything about the system’s more efficient. You can literally save up to 20 percent on your yearly heating and cooling costs with a new, more energy-efficient unit.
What Energy Star Means
Many people think Energy Star is a brand name or a particular company. Actually, it’s a program created jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. Its goal is laudable: to help everybody save money and protect the environment through energy-efficient products and practices. And the program is working.
To benefit from this program, you just look for the Energy Star symbol on a product. It’s like a seal of approval. To wear it, that product has to meet strict energy efficiency guidelines.
You can find the Energy Star symbol on all kinds of things, from complete homes to appliances and office equipment, including
- central air-conditioning units and room air conditioners
- ceiling fans (another great way to reduce cooling costs and energy use)
- refrigerators and freezers
- clothes washers dishwashers
- windows and skylights
- roofing products
- insulation televisions, VCRs, and DVD players
- computers and monitors
- fax machines, printers, and scanners
- cordless phones
- lighting fixtures
Purchasing Energy Star–qualified products can even get you a tax break. To find out which products qualify and which forms you’ll need to submit to the Internal Revenue Service, visit the Energy Star website at www.energystar.gov.
How much of a difference does it make to switch to an Energy Star–qualified product? It depends on the product. It can range from a little to a very significant difference. Say you’re thinking about replacing an old water heater or refrigerator with a newer model.
Replacing your refrigerator bought in 1990 with a newer, more energy-efficient model would save enough energy to light the average household for nearly four months.
In a typical household, that fridge is the single biggest energy-consuming appliance in the kitchen. In fact, the refrigerator actually uses 25 percent of the energy consumed in most homes.
But even if you can’t replace your current refrigerator, you can still help the one you’ve got use less energy. First, position your fridge so it’s not near a heat source, which makes the fridge work harder to stay cool. You don’t want it right next to the oven or right next to the dishwasher or even in the path of direct sunlight from a window.
Also, make sure air can circulate around the condenser coils. If your refrigerator has coils on the back, that means leaving a space between the back of your refrigerator and the kitchen wall or cabinets. Once or twice a year, you’ll want to unplug your refrigerator and clean the coils, which are either on the back or in front, behind a kick plate. You can use a vacuum attachment or even warm, soapy water if they’re greasy and grimy. Cleaning those coils enables the refrigerator to operate more efficiently.
And here’s another piece of low-hanging fruit: Make sure the door seals are airtight. If you can feel cold air seeping out of your refrigerator, you’re wasting a lot of energy. The good news is it’s easy to install new seals, and they’re readily available online or from a hardware store.
You can also adjust the thermostat inside your fridge and inside your freezer. Keep your refrigerator between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and keep your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
And while this may sound obvious, another easy way to save energy is to shut the refrigerator door. Some people get into the habit of leaving that door open when they’re unloading groceries or trying to figure out what to cook for dinner or looking for the perfect midnight snack. This makes your refrigerator work a lot harder to keep your food cold. It’s also important to avoid overcrowding your refrigerator, as restricting the airflow makes it less efficient. The freezer, on the other hand, keeps food frozen most efficiently when full.
If you do decide to upgrade your fridge, be sure to take the old one to a recycling center or call for a pickup, if that service is provided in your area.
I gave Rachelle a hard time about using the dishwasher for years. The truth is, I find solace and joy and happiness in doing dishes, and I was always careful about filling up the sink with soapy water, rather than letting the water run while I was cleaning plates and pots and pans.
Still, as careful as I was, there are now Energy Star–qualified dishwashers that are even more efficient than I am.
Beyond that, a dishwasher uses hotter water than you can stand when you’re hand washing. Energy Star dishwashers get that water up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which does a much better job of disinfecting your dishes, so it’s more sanitary.
A dishwasher saves time, too—more than 230 hours a year.
Of course, you need to develop good dishwashing habits to maximize the eco-savings. First, make sure the dishwasher is full before you run it. Using the dishwasher only saves water and energy over hand washing if you’ve got the dishwasher at least three-quarters full.
Also, don’t use the Heated Dry feature. Instead, allow the dishes to air-dry inside the dishwasher. If you’re worried about spotting, you can always use a rinse agent.
If you’re like most people, you probably still rinse your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher. Rinsing dishes can waste up to 20 gallons of water per load. With most newer model dishwashers, this is no longer necessary. A grinder in the exhaust drain will cut up any residual food particles to prevent clogs, and today’s detergents are designed to do all that cleaning. Even if your dishes are going to sit in the machine overnight because you don’t have a full load, you’re better off using the dishwasher’s Rinse feature. It uses far less water than hand rinsing each plate individually.
From “Living Like Ed: One Man's Guide to Living an Environmentally-Friendly Life” by Ed Begley, Jr. Copyright © 2008 Clarkson Potter. Republished with permission.