LOCALLY GROWN: When it comes to home improvements, conservation is still king

Friday, June 25, 2010 | 2:38 p.m. CDT

Insulation. It’s not a sexy word. It’s not hip like solar or scientific and earthy sounding like geothermal.

But it should be one of the first steps toward getting a sustainable dwelling in order.


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What ways are you conserving energy at home? What’s a change that you want to make but haven't had a chance yet?

Read the Locally Grown blog on Monday to see what Columbia sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe did to improve her home’s energy efficiency.

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Combined with weatherization updates such as caulking cracks and applying weather stripping to doors and windows, it’s the most cost-effective way to reduce your energy bills and your carbon footprint.

Before you start blowing recycled newspapers into your attic and insulating every pipe in the house, get a free energy audit. You’ll have a plan of action and a cost-benefit analysis so you can most effectively spend your green to go green.

David Mars, the energy guru for the city of Columbia, recently audited our house. Before we even shook hands, Mars was already evaluating our entryway. The front door seals well, meaning we were off to a good start.

My wife and I paid for an energy audit from Simple Energy Solutions last November, but (insert lame excuse here) we failed to act on the information. I figured Mars could give us a good overview and the confidence to load the caulk gun again. He does about 400 audits per year and triple that in phone consultations, so he speaks conservation fluently.

The average Columbia utility customer uses 822 kilowatt hours per month. We averaged 260 for our first year, so we’re ahead of the curve but still with lots of room for improvement, especially in heating and cooling, which account for 50 percent of the average home’s energy costs.  

I proudly declared, and Mars confirmed, that we’re vampire free — of both the teenage heartthrob kind and the electrical devices that suck energy when they’re not in use. The EPA estimates that vampire energy is up to 10 percent of household electricity consumption.

To eliminate vampire energy, we started with a simple visual survey.  Do we really need a digital clock on the stove and microwave when there’s one on the wall? Now, we only plug in the microwave when we need to use it. The clock on the stove has a separate on/off button.

Plugging our TV and stereo into a power strip we can easily switch off helps, too. Try a Kill-A-Watt meter to see which appliances are sucking the most energy and how much they’ll consume for the year. Listening to the radio for a year costs us about as much as a sandwich at Which Wich.

Thanks to the people we bought the house from and a few of our own switches, all of our lights are compact-florescents. According to the EPA’s calculator, each year the curly bulbs are saving us $175 and keeping 3,689 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Think that’s small potatoes? Multiply it by the 45,300 households in Columbia and that’s 167,111,700 pounds of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere. That's like 14,954 Columbia drivers hanging up their keys for a year and biking, walking or wheeling to their destinations.

I was afraid Mars or Travis Condict, who did our first audit, would recommend window or door upgrades. While more energy-efficient doors and windows can certainly help, they aren’t as critical as tightening cracks, and they cost significantly more than caulk, weather stripping and insulation combined.

In the last 35 years, Central Missouri Community Action has weatherized nearly 6,000 homes in mid-Missouri with an average annual savings of $218 per dwelling. Their crews hit all the energy-saving points — lighting, insulation, weather stripping and caulk. They rarely do windows or doors because they just don’t have the payback value, said David Gregory, chief energy auditor for CMCA. 

If the experts say low-tech, low-cost solutions are the place to start, I’m listening.

But even low-tech requires some trial and error. Weather stripping requires some finesse, Mars said. He suggested buying a few types to try, and you could also take the model number from your window and measure the space where stripping goes before you head to the hardware store.

In just two attempts and for less than a buck, we eliminated the daylight and air coming in our basement door. 

“Insulation is a frontier where you can spend a little money and see returns faster, and it keeps newspapers out of landfills (if you use cellulose),” Mars said.

If we add six inches of insulation in the attic, it would save about $88 annually. With the 30 percent tax credit, the insulation costs just over $100, so it will pay for itself in a little less than one year. Now all we need are a few cool days and the gumption to venture into the attic.

After we’ve caulked, insulated and sealed, Condict will return to see if we can join the 680 Columbia residents who have qualified for the Home Performance with Energy Star program since the city started it in 2008. Qualifying means access to rebates and a Home Performance Loan.

Participating homes have seen an average 30 percent improvement in energy savings with some achieving a 60 percent improvement, said Connie Kacprowicz, spokesperson for Columbia Water and Light. That 30 percent improvement translates to $275 per year in your pocket.

Want to get started today? Look for spiders. They build webs where the bugs are, which is likely close to where air is entering your home, Kacprowicz said. Her home updates solved her energy issues and put a stop to snakes entering her basement. 

If you've already done all of this, pat yourself on the back, then kindly suggest that a friend or neighbor do so, too. You can even lend a hand and share your conservation capabilities.

Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, a graduate instructor and the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps.

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Mark Foecking June 26, 2010 | 5:45 p.m.

Excellent article. Insulation and weatherstripping are the most cost effective efficiency techniques a homeowner can apply.

Another little snippet - if one has a large house with few people in it, and these people tend to stay in certain rooms, than one can save a lot by cooling and heating just those rooms. Even thought the efficiency (in Btu/watt-hour, also known as EER) may be less for a window unit vs. a modern central air conditioner, cooling less space may mean lower total electrical usage (conservation).


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