Hacks to Stop Wasting Electricity

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The next set of changes address wasting electricity. Why are you pouring electricity onto the ground or heating the outdoors? The library is full of helpful books on how to weatherstrip and insulate your home. Do them. We’ve done them all and what a difference! We save money every day that we otherwise would have spent on heating, cooling, and electricity.

Electrical waste starts with leaving lights burning in empty rooms, but it doesn’t end there. Every single electrical device in your home that has a light, a digital clock, or a remote control is permanently on. It uses power 24/7, even if it’s not very much and you think the device is turned off.

Staking Vampire Loads

Suppose at the beginning of every year you had to sit down and write a check to the power company for each device that’s left on during the year.

A radio that displays the time? That’ll be $1.44 please.

Your cordless phone? $3.18. An LCD monitor that pops on as soon as you hit the switch? $2.51. The laser printer. $12.43.

The list goes on and on. The plasma TV ($159.77), VCR ($10.12), DVD player ($8.67), a single game console ($25.73), and rechargable toothbrush ($1.35).

Add them up, and you’ve spent $225.50 for the privilege of having your servants attend to your immediate needs at the flip of a finger. (This assumes you’re paying 11 cents per watt.)

Is that what you wanted to do with two centuries and spare change? This power drain on your electrical utility and your wallet is called your vampire load or phantom load. It is the standby power a device uses to stay awake so it can spring into action at the touch of a button or the lighted display that is on at all times for your convenience. Every device such as a TV, a microwave, a coffee pot with a built-in clock uses very little electricity. Add up all the devices in the country, and those standby vampire loads add up to a powerplant or two.

The way to counteract vampire loads is to first, try not to buy them! This can be a challenge these days to buy a coffee maker that doesn’t have a built-in clock. Do I need a clock in my coffee-maker? No, I do not, nor do I want to pay both for the extra cost to add a clock, the added complexity a clock brings to a coffee maker and most especially I don’t want to pay the extra few dollars a year in electricity that the clock uses.

So instead we ensure that they really are turned off. You can do this by unplugging them. If a device has an easy-to-reach outlet, remember to plug and unplug it and ignore that annoying clock.

If you have a group of devices, such as your TV set, the DVD player, and the Wii game platform all in one place, plug them ALL into a power-strip and turn them on and off at the power strip switch. They look like this:

wasting electricity power strip

This is what we do for sets of things that work together. It did require purchasing power-strips (which you should have any way for many electrical devices as they come with surge protectors that keep power fluxes from frying your computer), plugging all the group of appliances, and then training the family to use the power-strip. Depending on how much of a power hog your appliances are (and how many you have), this can actually add up to tens of dollars over the years. No, it isn’t that much electricity on a house-by-house basis. Society wide? Let me put it this way: Is it worth two powerplants, so we can have digital clock readouts on our coffee-makers?

Stripping to Save Money

Weather-stripping is easy and cheap and even renters can do this. Close your front door up and lock it. This sounds obvious, but now that winter’s here in Hershey, we walk our dog at night through the neighborhood. Inevitably, we’ll see one or two houses with their front door open with only a glass storm door between them and the 40-degree night. While we appreciate seeing how our neighbors decorate their living room and what they’re watching on TV, but I wonder if they’re aware how much money they’re tossing into the cold night air.

There’s a test you can use to determine if you need weather-stripping. Turn off the lights, inside and out. Stand outside, and have a friend shine a flashlight all around the edges of the door. If you see light leaking through, then your heat (and AC) is leaking out as well. Simple weather-stripping kits are available at every hardware store. Get some and install them at every door and stop losing heat through your front door.

Something Nasty in the Attic

If you have an attic, at the interior walls for cracks and light leaks. We discovered a light leakage in the inside corner of our stairwell. From the stairwell, nothing was visible, but inside the attic, you could see a line of light 1/8-inch wide and 7 feet high. This line added up to a fist-sized hole that poured heat and AC into the attic year-round.

Insulate, insulate, insulate. Insulation isn’t hard to do, but it is persnickety, detail-oriented work. Every gap you leave is an opening for heat loss. We’ve insulated basement ceilings, stuffed in pink fiberglass and then covered it with pressure-fitted Styrofoam panels. We’ve laid down and then overlaid more fiberglass batts into our attics.

The previous owners claimed they had insulated the attic. They hadn’t. There was batting there, it’s true. The batting was thrown about, leaving huge gaps. It was also squashed flat by heaps of junk. This destroys the insulating qualities of the batts as they have to be dry and fluffed to work. Don’t pile anything on your insulation if you want it to work.

Working with fiberglass batts is tiring, itchy, meticulous work but you can do it yourself if you’re handy (and be sure to wear as dust mask!). Blowing insulation into wall cavities is a job for a professional. Get references before you hire someone.

Our upstairs was added onto the house years after it was built. We have a partially finished basement, also done years after the house was built. In each case, the walls had batting in the studs, but left open on the exterior unheated sides. Bill nailed heavy 1½-thick foam insulating panels over the exposed walls in both the attic and the basement. Hard, messy, dirty work but what a difference! The rooms were warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, and quieter all year-round. These panels were heavy, thick, and made just for this purpose. You can get them at hardware stores, and they come in several thicknesses and with a reflective side. If you have exposed walls facing into an unheated space, they’re ideal for covering up the batting and the studs. The work load of installing them is the same whatever the thickness, the cost is greater for thicker ones, but the added insulation and quiet make it worthwhile to use the thickest ones available.

The other job Bill did in the attic was installing perforated foil, nailing it to the rafters leaving an air gap at the top and the bottom. This reflected heat away from the attic. Attics are not supposed to be heated space. The goal is to keep the attic as close as you can to the outside temperature, i.e., cold in the winter and no hotter than the air in the summer. The heavy insulation in the ceiling keeps the heat (or AC) in the house. Venting and reflective foil keep the attic from overheating in the summer. A cooler attic in the summer makes your AC run less as you don’t have that hot mass of air sucking away your cool air all the time.

We also wrapped all the exposed pipes with pipe-wrap. These are heavy foam sleeves that you slide over all your pipes, both hot and cold water. Insulating the hot water lines from the hot water heater to the sink keeps the water hotter, requiring less time to run the water before it warms up. Insulating the cold water lines helps keep the lines from freezing when it gets really cold.

After we did all this work to insulate the attic, we discovered how much heat the attic had been receiving from the house below. The pipes leading to the upstairs bathroom froze. They were, we discovered, open and unsealed, fully exposed to winter. This is in Pennsylvania! It isn’t unheard of for us to have below-freezing weather! These pipes are now wrapped in the thickest pipe-wrap available, with more fiberglass wrapped around them, and in a box built of leftover foam panels. We don’t have a problem anymore.

We’ve wrapped every bit of the pipes that we can reach, hot and cold. Hot water always gets the thickest wrap, cold lines the thinner ones. Doing this made hot water arrive quicker and last longer to the upstairs bathroom, to the kitchen sink, and to the basement bathroom. These spaces always had a problem with getting the water hot enough and then keeping it that way. No more. Was this a pain in the ass? You bet it was. As part of the job we also tagged out all the plumbing so anyone working on the lines now has a fighting chance of knowing what line goes where and what it does. If you don’t feel that thicker and thinner wrappings identify the hot and cold water lines enough, you can mark the pipes by wrapping them with colored tape here and there, red for hot and blue for cold. A future plumber or home owner may thank you for that.

There are other insulating things you can do as well, such as storm doors and heavy drapes. You can insulate your beds with down comforters, allowing you to lower the thermostat another notch or two.

headboard wasting electricityOne of my more recent purchases was a headboard for our bed. It came with a wicker insert which I didn’t like. I replaced the wicker insert with foam padding and a fashion-fabric covering. The headboard separates our bed from the cold north wall. It did make a comfort difference and when you put your hand between the headboard and the wall in January, it is cold, cold, cold in that space. The bed side? Room temperature.

All the insulating and weather stripping cuts down on drafts as well, and this, too, lets you turn down the thermostat a notch. It’s worth checking to see why you feel a constant draft in a corner. You may discover a hole, or a break in a window. Improperly closed storm windows can give you cold drafts. Broken panes of glass should be replaced, with new putty and glaziers points. Cold outside air will seep in through every single crack so it can make a difference. If nothing else, replacing broken glass will cut down on the rattles when the wind blows.

Insulation also means putting blankets and throws on chairs and couches so when you’re sitting down and watching TV, you can cover up with a blanket rather than heating up the entire house a few more degrees. This is a lifestyle change as well as an insulation one: The blanket is insulation but it doesn’t work if you don’t use it.

As with energy-saving lifestyle changes, the library is full of thrift and energy saving books detailing every step possible to cut down on your energy footprint. Go down to your library and start reading and then get to work. The great thing about insulating and weather-stripping is that once it’s done, your insulation will keep working for you, day and night and you don’t have to think about it anymore. This frees up time and money to do something else.