Are You Looking for Energy Savings in All the Wrong Places?

Going to extreme measures for home energy savings Energy costs are always going up, partially because we have more things to plug in than ever before. Image: Ann Rosener, photographer/Office of War Information/Library of Congress

Ack! Our energy costs are going up because too many of us are making the wrong judgment calls about how to save energy. Here’s why we’re having a disconnect.

Do you see your energy bills rising even if you’ve implemented up to three projects to save energy? In the first of our two-part Q&A with an expert on consumer attitudes toward energy efficiency, we look at the energy-saving truths many of us ignore. Hint: Replacing windows isn’t your best bet.

Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group, a marketing agency specializing in sustainability and energy efficiency. Shelton Group’s annual Energy Pulse research report tracks consumer attitudes toward energy-related topics.

HouseLogic: So our energy bills are going up?

Suzanne Shelton: Yes, for many of us, even though we may think our energy use is going down.

HL: How come?

Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis where we have no idea how much we pay for it. It would be different if we had to feed dollars into a machine to make the power run in our homes.

The way we use energy now is the equivalent of walking into a convenience store every day and filling our pockets with candy and walking out. Then the bill comes at the end of the month and we’re saying, “There’s no way I ate that much candy!”

This is an inherent problem with the way we use energy, or it will be, at least, until we live like the Jetsons and have nifty energy dashboards in our homes.

HL: Why are we using more energy now — what are the main culprits? 

SS: Several things. We simply have more stuff plugged in now than we did five or 10 years ago — Xboxes, electronics chargers, iPads — and some of those things are energy hogs.

For example, plasma TVs use as much energy as a refrigerator. They’re getting more efficient now, but if you had the old square CRT and replaced it with a flat-screen plasma, you’re instantly paying the utility much more than you did before.

People are buying an Energy Star refrigerator, but then putting the old one in the garage as a beer fridge. For example, a friend of mine was in the process of selling her house. She wasn’t living there and she had the HVAC turned off, but she had an old refrigerator inside, plus a freezer plugged in on the back porch. Her utility bill came in at $50 a month and she was furious. “I’m never there!” she said. “The lights are off, the heat’s off, how can this be right?”

I said, “Are your appliances plugged in?” And so she unplugged the freezer and her refrigerator inside. It cut her bill in half.

HL: Do we also think that if we’re saving energy in one way, we can use more of something else?

SS: Yes. People tell us in focus groups, “I bought these CFLs so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I bought a high-efficiency washer and dryer because I want to do more laundry without paying more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.”

Psychologists call it “moral licensing,” but we at Shelton Group call it the “Snackwells Effect,” as in, they’re low-fat, so I can eat all of them.

HL: What’s the reason for this disconnect?

SS: Most of us have no idea how our homes really work, so we don’t know how to make the biggest impact. That’s why consumers run out and replace their windows first, when that should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements to make, and they totally ignore effective activities like caulking and sealing that cost far less. 

HL: I’m surprised people replace their windows first.

SS: The aesthetic draw of new windows is really strong; we love to be around pretty things. You can also talk yourself into it because you think it’ll improve your resale value. But more than that, if you put your hand up to a window, even an energy-efficient window, you can feel that it’s hot or cold, so people just assume that’s where the biggest problem is.

But for the average home owner, new windows aren’t the best use of your home improvement dollar in terms of saving money on your energy bills. Everyone’s situation is different, but other projects usually cost far less and offer a faster return on your investment.

HL note: Consider this: If you spend $12,000 on windows and save 7% to 15% on your energy bill, according to Department of Energy data, when you could have spent around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing and saved 20% on your energy bill, you made the wrong choice if your only reason for undertaking the project was reducing energy costs.

What you can really do to make a difference in your home energy costs? Hint: At least four to five projects. We’ll tell you what they are.