Monday, December 7, 2009
Goin' Green in Recessionary times..quick tips.
It's tough to be green when money is tight.
Lots of big environmentally friendly changes look good in theory, like buying solar panels or switching to a hybrid car. The trouble is, many of those fixes take years to make back their cost -- and most people can't afford that luxury in these tough economic times.
The good news: There are plenty of energy-saving changes you can make that will recoup their cost fast. Some are cheap and simple, like replacing the air filters on your central air conditioning. Others are costlier and more complicated -- such as insulating your attic -- but they're so effective they'll pay for themselves quickly.
We've chosen 10 changes and laid out how much they'll cost you and how much they'll save, as well as the payback time. In most cases, it's less than a year or two.
Programmable thermostats make it easy to preset a week's worth of temperatures -- and give you much greater control over energy bills. For instance, you could program the gadget to lower the temperature when everyone's asleep, something you might forget to do on a nightly basis.
COST: $50 to $150.
PAYBACK: About a year, assuming the thermostat controls both heating and cooling.
How'd we arrive at that figure? We turned to a calculator on the Web site for the Department of Energy's EnergyStar program. The tool shows you how much these advanced thermostats will save you. (One caveat: The estimates assume you have natural-gas heat and electric central cooling.)
Let's use the calculator to look at two cities -- Fargo, N.D., where electricity rates are low but where lots of heat is needed in the winter, and Las Vegas, which has higher rates and needs lots of cooling in the summer. And let's say you use the thermostat to make modest temperature changes at night, lowering it to 62 from 70 in cold months, and raising it to 82 from 78 when the weather's warm.
In Fargo, the thermostat would save you about $115 on heating and cooling annually -- so you'd make back the cost within a year if you spent $100. In Las Vegas, you'd save about $75 and make your money back in a little over a year.
What's more, some utilities will install the thermostats free in exchange for letting them scale back your central air-conditioning use remotely on hot summer days. Many utilities also offer rebates on these devices.
Smarter Water Heating
Drain-water heat-recovery systems warm up water for your shower by capturing the heat from waste water as it travels down your drain. (You can also get the systems for dishwashers and other appliances.)
COST: $500 to $700, plus $100 or so for installation.
PAYBACK: Around five years, assuming you heat your water with natural gas and pay fairly high rates. If you use electricity, payback can be under three years. And if your utility offers a rebate for installation, as many do, that payback time can be less than a year in some cases.
These systems can save 183 cubic meters of natural gas a year -- assuming your household takes four showers a day that last seven minutes each, and uses standard shower heads.
In New York, where natural-gas rates are fairly high, you'd save about $120 per year. In five years, you'd save about $600 -- enough to cover a $500 system and $100 installation. In states with lower rates, the annual savings might be lower, and the payback longer.
Households that have electric water heating can save 1,478 kilowatt-hours per year with these systems. In New York, that translates into about $225 a year -- or a payback of a little more than 2½ years.
And, of course, rebates can cut down that time. For example, Minnesota Power, a division of Allete Inc., is offering a $400 rebate through the end of February for customers with electric water heaters who buy a system.
Sealing Air Leaks
Filling in the gaps around windows and doors, and sealing up ducts, can be a simple way to cut energy bills.
COST: Weatherstripping that goes under and around external doors runs $20 a door. With windows, you insert caulk between the frame and siding, wherever the air is going through, at a cost of about $10 a window. Then there's an often-overlooked source of air leaks: the electrical outlets on exterior walls. These can be fixed with outlet sealers, which cost under $10 for a pack of six.
You can do all those fixes yourself. But you often need to hire someone to seal heating and cooling ducts. The job will usually run from $300 to $1,000, depending on the size of your house.
PAYBACK: About two to three years -- but there are lots of variables.
The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't estimate energy savings from individual sealing fixes. If you do them all -- plus add insulation in some spots -- the agency estimates you will save up to 20% on your heating and cooling, or up to 10% of your total energy bill. That figure assumes a three-bedroom house with insulation in the walls and attic, among other variables.
Let's say you pay about $1,000 for a soup-to-nuts weatherproofing job. In Springfield, Mont., where homes need lots of heat in the winter, you would save about $325 a year, covering your cost in a little under three years. In Tallahassee, Fla., where homes take lots of air conditioning, you would save about $520, for a two-year payback.
One more caveat: Those figures, based on a study by Memphis Light, Gas & Water, assume you use 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 20,000 cubic feet of natural gas a month. And some utilities and states offer rebates and tax incentives for these fixes. Austin Energy, for instance, offers to cover 20% of the cost of weatherization, as well as energy-efficient appliances and other purchases.
Low-flow showerheads and faucets limit the volume of water you can get out of the fixtures, reducing the amount you spend on water -- and on electricity or gas to heat the water. Although the technology is improving, you'll still feel a difference in water pressure.
COST: Low-flow showerheads start at around $30, while faucet aerators cost $2 and up. Both are simple to install.
PAYBACK: For aerators, almost immediate. For showerheads, a few months.
Using the Department of Energy online calculator to compare standard fixtures with low-flow models that pump out 1.5 gallons per minute. In Baltimore, which has high utility rates, investing a few dollars in a new faucet would save you about $50 a year on your gas and water bills (or $65 if you had electric water heating). New showerheads would save you about $115 total with gas heating or $160 with electric -- for a payback of several months.
In Chicago, which has below-average gas rates, a new faucet would save about $40 a year with gas heating and $65 with electric -- an immediate payback. New showerheads would save about $90 with gas heating and $165 with electric, recouping your cost in several months.
In addition, several utilities offer rebates for buying low-flow fixtures.
Leasing Solar Panels
Buying and installing a set of solar panels can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But leasing the same system can be a cost-effective alternative.
Several companies—most of them in California and a handful of other states—will install solar panels on your property, then charge you for the power the panels generate. Essentially, the company owns the panels, and you "rent" them by paying the cost of the power. That rate is often lower than your regular utility rate. (In Oregon, the rate's the same, but people often choose the panels for environmental reasons, according to Lyndon Rive, chief executive of solar leasing company SolarCity.) You'll also have to pay your utility for power when the panels aren't generating any electricity, such as nighttime. But you'll be paying much less than you ordinarily would.
COST: Sometimes nothing. Many companies don't charge an upfront fee for the panels, and their plans promise to reduce your total electric bill immediately by about 11%. Consider a typical plan for condominium owners from Applied Solar LLC. The company says its arrangement delivers savings of $15 per month on a total electricity bill, or $180 a year, for an owner in San Diego Gas & Electric territory who used to pay $135 per month and is buying solar from a 2-kilowatt system.
However, some companies do charge an upfront fee, often $2,000 to $5,000. In some cases, that fee is considered a prepayment on the solar-power portion of your bills -- so you end up paying less for that power every month. In other cases, the fee doesn't lower your monthly bill; it's simply a down payment.
PAYBACK: Immediate, if you pay no upfront fee. If you pay a fee that lowers your rates, payback can take a while. Let's say you prepay $2,000, which some solar companies say can save you an extra 10% a month on your payments for panel-generated power. In a typical case, that translates into saving $25 a month on your total electric bill, or $300 a year -- for a payback of seven years.
If your upfront fee is just a down payment, though, the payback time is much longer -- because you don't get any extra discount on your bill. Assuming you save $180 a year with the panels, your payback time on a $2,000 down payment would be about 11 years.
When the air filter in your cooling system or air-conditioning unit gets dirty, the system has to work harder to get the air through, using up more energy. In warmer climates, the filter should be changed three times per year.
COST: New filters cost about $10 each for central systems. Window-unit filters can simply be wiped clean.
PAYBACK: Less than a year in warm climates for central units. Immediately in all climates for window units.
Keeping the air filter clean saves about 7% in electricity costs a year So, let's say you're in a warm climate like Texas and you spend $30 changing your central-air filters every year. According to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, the average cooling bill in Texas is about $620. Figuring a 7% savings, you'd slash your electric bill by about $45 -- covering the cost of the filters in less than a year. (Cleaning the filter on a window unit, meanwhile, would cost nothing and save about $20 a year.)
However, in cooler climates, more frequent filter changing won't save enough money to make it worthwhile. In New York, with an average annual cooling bill of $250, the savings would only be about $15 a year.
Compact Fluorescent Lights
These advanced bulbs use up to 75% less energy than regular bulbs, and they last about six to 12 times longer. Experts say that replacing regular lights with CFLs can be the cheapest, most effective way to get big savings on energy bills.
COST: About $3 a bulb.
PAYBACK: Three to 7½ months.
We used an online EnergyStar calculator to figure savings for one 13-watt CFL that replaces a 60-watt incandescent light, used about four hours a day. In New York, a state with relatively high electric rates, the bulb would save about $1 in energy costs per month, covering the cost of a $3 bulb in about three months. In Nebraska, a state that has one of the cheapest rates in the nation, that same CFL would save about 40 cents a month, covering the cost in about 7½ months.
Lighting Motion Sensors
Although they're more common in commercial buildings, motion sensors that automatically turn off lights when a room isn't occupied can offer big energy savings in a home. They're particularly useful when installed on outdoor lights, which are often left on all night.
COST: Many porch lights have built-in sensors and cost about $50 to $60.
PAYBACK: Under a year. Assuming the light would have been left on for 12 hours through the night and is now off all that time -- except for brief moments when someone approaches the door -- a sensor will save about 1.8 kilowatt-hours over the 12-hour period and 54 kilowatt-hours in a month. In an expensive state like New York, that would come to about $10 a month in electricity costs, making the payback time a little over five months. In a cheaper state like Nebraska, the motion sensor would save about $5 a month, making the payback time just over 11 months.
Blinds, shades or curtains do more than decorate -- they can also cut cooling bills in summer and heating bills in winter. If you have lots of windows that face south and west, even inexpensive curtains or shades can help block sunlight and reduce the need for air conditioning. Hanging somewhat more expensive shades on all windows can provide even more insulation against outside temperatures in both winter and summer.
COST: Inexpensive pull-down blinds that provide summer shade run $5 to $10; curtains that promise greater insulation typically sell for as little as $30 and can run as high as $150.
PAYBACK: From just under a year to almost four years, depending on a host of variables.
Putting shades on southerly or westerly facing windows can reduce your cooling costs by 6%. For an average 2,000-square-foot house with 12 windows, covering the six south- and west-facing windows will cost about $45. So, in New York -- with an average cooling bill of about $250 -- you'll save about $15 with inexpensive shades, for a payback of about three years. In a warmer climate like Texas, you'll save about $40 and recoup your costs in a little over a year.
Insulated curtains, meanwhile, curb losses from air conditioning and heating. Let's say you spend about $50 each on the curtains for all 12 windows, for a total of $600. Using figures from the Energy Information Administration and the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, we figured you'd save about $170 a year in New York, with a payback of 3½ years. A similar home in Texas would see a slightly longer payback period.
It's well known that insulating attics can reduce the amount of heat escaping through the roof. But many attics, especially in older homes, still have too little insulation -- or none at all.
COST: About $500 to nearly $700 for an average 2,000-square-foot house; less if the attic already has some insulation. That doesn't include installation costs, which can vary widely.
PAYBACK: A year and a half, but it can vary depending on the climate, cost of insulation and other factors. Installation costs can also boost the payback time.
Properly insulating a house can save up to 25% on heating and cooling costs, according to numerous experts. An average household in New York will spend about $1,700 on heating and cooling a year. Insulation -- which is pricey in New York -- will bring a savings of about $425, with a payback of about a year and a half.
In Texas, the heating and cooling bill runs about $1,280 and insulation -- which is on the cheaper side there -- will save about $320. Again, a payback of about a year and a half.