For many of the millions of Americans stuck working from home for nearly a year, it’s never been easier to care about home energy use.
Many have never before been so intimately familiar with every square inch of their home.
Whether homeowners want to save on their utility bills each month, care on a moral level about reducing their energy use, or even just want to make their house more attractive to prospective buyers, there’s a whole host of steps to take – some easy and inexpensive, others pricey and involved.
According to Lee Dutcher, co-owner of Dutcher Construction, people looking to lower their energy use inside their house have a clear starting place.
“Windows by far are the single biggest energy suck,” said Dutcher, who also teaches carpentry and chairs Central New Mexico Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing/Skilled Trades program.
Single-pane glass doesn’t do much to keep heat in or out of a house, but there are steps homeowners can take.
DIY: The easiest, cheapest option is applying a peel-and-stick window film that will help block heat in or out of the house. It’s not as effective as double-paned glass, but it makes a difference. Dutcher said homeowners can pick up the product at most hardware stores, and it doesn’t take long to apply – especially after the first window.
call a pro: The most effective fix for single-pane glass windows – which are common in older homes – is simply to replace them. Homeowners can upgrade to energy efficient double-paned windows. Non-toxic argon gas in between the two panes acts as a buffer, and while switching windows out is significantly more expensive than the peel-and-stick options, it’s also significantly more effective, according to Dutcher. Homeowners can also opt for windows with a “low-e” coating that acts as a tint, blocking ultraviolet rays.
Proper attic insulation, too, keeps the cold or hot air at bay. Garrity Insulation General Manager Jose Resendiz compares it to “putting a blanket over your house,” or otherwise layering up.
“When you don’t have any insulation, the heat, it just goes out (of) your house,” he said. “… It has no resistance at all.”
Uninsulated or under insulated duct systems can also cause issues with cooling systems, Resendiz said.
“In your attic, it gets 140 degrees in summertime,” he said. “… So that duct work is 140 degrees.”
Heat loss can make an enormous difference in terms of energy – and cost.
Advanced DIY or call a pro: Resendiz’s crews use machines to blow insulation into attics. Major hardware stores today will rent those machines to homeowners who want to do their own insulation. There’s technique involved, and Resendiz said anyone doing their own attic work should be careful of falling through the roof, and should consider getting an estimate from a professional – when all is said and rebated, the cost may be comparable.
Homeowners considering switching from swamp coolers to air conditioning should pay special attention to their insulation and seals. Resendiz said to imagine driving in 100-degree heat with the car’s air conditioning on – it’s just not as effective if air is coming in through the windows.
“You have your windows closed,” he said. “The tighter you are, the cooler you are inside.”
Call a pro: Residential solar panels are still top of mind for many New Mexicans. Marlene Brown, a retired Sandia National Laboratories worker who teaches photovoltaics at CNM, said since she started in the field, the cost of solar has gone down tremendously for average consumers.
Kurt Nilson, a sales consultant at Albuquerque-based Solar Works Energy, said the state approved a 10% tax credit last year for taxpayers who buy and install a solar thermal or photovoltaic system. That’s in addition to the federal solar tax credit, which currently offers taxpayers a 26% tax credit for solar systems.
“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your home, it adds value to your house,” he said.
Keeping a tight seal on doors is an important part of reducing energy consumption. Weather stripping around an external door’s edge eventually wears out and stops rebounding.
DIY: Dutcher recommends replacing weather stripping on a home’s most-used door about once every five years. It’s not too complex and can be accomplished with some basic supplies, like a battery-powered screw gun and a razor knife – or even just a pair of scissors.
Insulating plumbing in different parts of a home can make a difference too.
DIY: With a little research, homeowners can buy and install covers on their water heaters and insulation around their water pipes, Dutcher said.
Call a pro: For those looking to take a bigger step, Dutcher said a plumber can install a hot water recirculating pump. The devices make hot water more quickly accessible at the tap by recirculating already heated water in the pipes.
A plumber can also install tankless water heaters, which heat water over a pilot to provide “almost instantaneous” hot water at the tap. Dutcher said the heaters save on both water waste and gas usage.
Updating lights, sealing up outlets, buying energy-efficient appliances and getting a smart thermostat can also help reduce energy use.
DIY: How many homeowners does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one – and switching from halogen bulbs to LEDs is an easy step that should lead to a quick decline in energy use and bills, Dutcher said.
Homeowners can also use gasket sealant to block air from coming in around light switches and outlets, Resendiz said.
Dutcher said energy-efficient appliances can also make a difference.
Advanced DIY: Replacing manual thermostats with a programmable unit can allow homeowners to keep their heat low while they’re away at work, but set itself to a comfortable temperature a half hour before their return, Dutcher said.
Call a pro: Updating internal lights to motion-sensor technology can help save energy as well. Dutcher said he recommends calling a pro for the installation, as it involves working with wiring and changing fixtures.