Agricultural Engineering Field Specialist
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach
The heavy player in Iowa home energy use is your home heating system, and your biggest tool for saving heating energy is home insulation. But beyond that major factor, there are other things you can do to curb your home energy diet.
Windows and doors are another weak spot in your house for letting heat energy escape. With windows, layers matter. Storm windows help, but multiple (2 or 3) layer sealed glass panels are even better. Special coatings and gas fill between layers can further increase the insulation value of the window. As a temporary measure, plastic film on the inside or outside of existing windows can be a big improvement. Storm doors or insulated cores make equivalent improvements on your doors. But insulation level of the door or glass is only part of the issue.
Air leaks let cold air in and hot air out. These leaks are often around the edges of doors and windows, but can also be around any opening in your walls (switches and outlets), ceiling (recessed fixtures) and even in your basement (crawl space doors). Big leaks in your living space may be readily identified by uncomfortable drafts, but smaller leaks and hidden leaks may be harder to find. Any devices that remove large amounts of warm air from your home, like fireplaces, furnace flues, kitchen and bath fans, and clothes dryers, require additional outside air to replace what was removed. So homes need to be able to breathe. But uncontrolled leaks can be uncomfortable and excessive leaks can mean unnecessary heating costs.
You can search for unwanted air leaks by looking for cold temperatures using your hand or a non-contact infrared thermometer (about $50 from home supply stores). These thermometers can also help you identify areas with inadequate insulation. Air leaks can also be identified with the help of cool vapor (smoke) or fine powder from a puffer or smoke pencil (about $30 to 50 from home supply stores). Use weather seals and caulking to close unwanted air leaks, but be certain that adequate fresh air is still supplied for combustion appliances like water heaters, furnaces, fireplaces and wood stoves. Local building codes may specify how make-up air must be provided for heating appliances.
Home appliances typically use about 25 percent of your home energy. Your water heater is the biggest culprit here, but don’t neglect the refrigerator, freezer and clothes washer and dryer. Appliance meters, sometimes called energy meters can be used to monitor appliance energy use to help you decide if replacement is justified (about $50 from home supply stores). Look at the yellow Energy Guide Label on major appliances to judge energy efficiency and typical annual energy costs. Big improvements have been made in clothes washers and refrigerators. Washers that use less water can reduce both electric use and water heating demand. Cold water cleans many fabrics as well as warm or hot water. Note that clothes dryers are not required to bear an Energy Guide Label. You can clean the lint filter more often and dry similar type fabrics together to reduce energy use.
Lighting is a small part of home energy use, typically around five percent, but changing to more efficient lighting can still be a wise investment. Lights that are on for many hours per day can repay more expensive CFL (compact fluorescent) or LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs in less than a year. Remember that these efficient bulbs generate less heat, which also reduces your air conditioning costs slightly in the summer. Save on outdoor yard or building lighting with higher efficiency lamps (high pressure sodium and metal halide are better than mercury vapor and incandescent) and by using timers or photo sensors to limit hours of operation.
Some devices (TVs, DVD players, game consoles, etc.) use power even when they are turned off. This “phantom power” is small, but can amount to several dollars per device per year. You can add a switch to the power cord or simply unplug units that are not in use.
While not often considered an appliance, your thermostat is a powerful tool for energy savings. Thermostat setback over night or while you’re gone can trim several percent off your heating bill. Programmable or remote control thermostats can have your home ready for you again when you get there.
Advice on performing your own energy efficiency evaluation and improvements is available in the home series fact sheets from the Iowa Energy Center and from the Office of Energy Efficiency. Check with your energy provider to see if they offer home energy audit assistance. It may give you access to money-saving expert advice at little or no cost. For more information on insulating your home, download EDC-03894 Home Tightening, Insulation and Ventilation.