How to Be Energy Efficient at Home: It’s Not What You Do, But …

It’s not just which energy-efficiency projects you implement at home that’ll make a dent in your bills — it’s how many.

This is the second part of our Q&A with Suzanne Shelton, 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. Read Part 1, “Looking for Energy Savings in All the Wrong Places.”

HouseLogic: Yesterday you told us why we’re so disconnected from our home’s energy use. Today, tell us what we should be doing differently to make our homes more energy efficient.

Suzanne Shelton: First, I want to mention that it matters how many energy-efficient things you do. Half of the population say they’ve done two to three things to make their homes more energy efficient — replaced incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, bought an Energy Star appliance, added insulation — but most people report that their bills have gone up.

HL: So more projects equal more results?

SS: Right. Once you get up to the level of making four or five energy-efficiency home improvements, you generally start seeing savings on your utility bill.

Depending on the activities you choose and the point you’re starting out at, you can probably expect a four- or five-year time frame for return of your investment. Which means now is a great time to do it. How many of us are stuck in our homes now because of the market?

If you’re potentially four or five years from selling, why not go ahead and make those improvements? You’ll get yourself paid back and live more comfortably and frugally right now, and you can brag about your improvements when you sell your house.

HL: The economy is weighing on everyone. If a home owner has just $1,000 to spend on energy-efficient home improvements, what would you recommend he or she do first? 

SS: 5 things:

1.Caulk and seal all penetrations into the home. I’ll tell you, I had a home energy audit done three years ago, and even though I do this for a living, I was astonished. When the guy walked me down into my basement and showed me all the penetrations from plumbing lines and electricity wires, I couldn’t believe all the gaping holes in my house. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and take a weekend to go around and seal everything, filling around windows, too. It takes time and it’s a pain, but it works.

2. Hire an HVAC contractor to take a hard look at all your ductwork — are there any ducts leaking that need to be re-sealed? — and give you an HVAC tune-up. You might spend a couple hundred bucks, but you can save significantly depending on how old or out of shape your HVAC system is. 

3. Replace all your lighting with CFLs or LEDs. Most people tell us they’ve replaced all their incandescents, but it just isn’t true. The DOE says that only about 13% of sockets are filled with CFLs right now.

4. Program your thermostat. Most people who buy programmable thermostats don’t program them. If we actually programmed them not to heat the furniture while we’re away, that would be smart.

5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. The Department of Energy recommends 120 degrees. If you have a tank water heater, it keeps a certain amount of water hot and ready to go all day, so lowering the temperature reduces the energy you use to heat the water.

If, after you’ve done all those relatively low-cost things, you want to make a little bit more of an investment, consider adding insulation to your house.

No one wants to do these things because they’re not sexy, and they’re kind of a pain, and windows seem more appealing. But I’d do all these activities before I replaced my windows.

HL: If you could spearhead an ad campaign to motivate home owners to make more energy-efficient improvements, what would it say? 

SS: You have to do five things to see the savings you want. That’s actually something we’re working on right now, so stay tuned.

Related: Why our energy bills aren’t likely to ever go down

Which energy-efficient projects have you implemented? Have you seen a reduction in your bill or an increase?