Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Need gift ideas? Try the gift of Energy Efficiency!

I rather doubt they'll notice, but I gave my neighbors, in the apartment below mine, an early Christmas present.

I replaced their filthy furnace filter with a fresh, longer-lasting one, and taped up air leaks around the filter slot. A few months back, I'd also begun the process of taping up their furnace plenum and main duct runs. I took care of the biggest leaks, though there's more to be done.

Stumped for holiday gift ideas this year? Would you rather contribute to the solution than the problem (i.e., stem the tide of waste rather than expand it with more "stuff")? How about giving the gift of energy efficiency this holiday season?

You've probably seen some or all of the many lists of simple, inexpensive ways to reduce energy consumption and increase efficiency in a typical household. Here are a few of my favorites:

Insulate the water heater
Does your intended gift recipient have an older, or less-efficient water heater? The U.S. Government's Energy Star program says an insulation jacket can save 4-9% in water heating costs. Find out if the target tank is a good candidate. Some newer, high-efficiency tanks have spray-foam insulation inside; they may not benefit from wrapping. My test is: if I can see fiberglass insulation, then the tank's a candidate for an insulation blanket. I've picked up vinyl-backed fiberglass insulation jackets with R11 rating at Lowe's for under $20.

Insulate hot water pipes
Since the plumbing that carries hot water around the house is essentially a series of radiators, why not put a stop to the waste with some tubular insulation? Commonly available in 6' lengths, most do-it-yourself brands are pre-split and may offer self-sealing sticky edges to seal the split after installing the insulation onto the pipe. Call me weird, but I have a lot of fun doing the 90° turns and working around support clamps (ask me for a step-by-step). The first 3-6' of both the cold inlet and hot outlet pipes attached to the water heater tank are critical, but insulate as much of the hot water pipes as you can reach. This fix can raise the water temperature at the taps by as much as 2-4°F. There are two commonly available tubular insulation materials; one costs about $1/length, the other, made from closed-cell neoprene with a much higher insulation value, costs about $5/length. There are other pipe wraps available as well, but I prefer the simplicity of tubulars.

Install switched power strips to kill phantom loads
Did you know that all those "power bricks," or transformers— that manage everything from charging your cell phone and your cordless drill to powering your laptop and TiVo and computer speakers— draw power constantly, whenever they're plugged in, even when they're not charging or powering anything?* Just touch one of them when it's supposedly off— if it's warm, it's wasting energy. These are called "phantom loads"— electrical devices or appliances that draw power even when "off." The classic example is the TV set: in order to sense the "turn on" signal from its remote control, a TV must draw a trickle of power to operate the sensor— 24/7/365. That adds up. And there are many other small loads that draw power while doing little or no good: microwave oven and stove clocks (how often do you use them, really?), DVD players and VCRs, stereo receivers, and more. The simple solution: plug all these items into inexpensive ($4-5 and up) power strips that have on-off switches, and turn the switch off when you're not using the devices. I even turn off my cable modem at night this way. What do I need it running for?
*Recently, a small minority of transformer/chargers have been designed to be "smart," meaning they don't draw power when the target device isn't plugged in and being charged. To test yours for this feature, use a sensitive watt meter to find out if it draws power when plugged in but not connected to its target device.

Install CFLs or LEDs
Surely, everyone's heard of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) by now! But I consider them a bridge technology— they're not ideal because they contain hazardous mercury and have certain limitations (slow startup, especially in low temperatures, for one). A much better technology is the venerable LED (light-emitting diode). The basic tech has been around for decades, but only recently has it been adapted for use in household and commercial lighting applications. Pictured here (not to scale) are images of a Cree LR6 ceiling downlight and a typical CFL. The LR6 is a screw-in retrofit lamp that fits in any standard 6" ceiling can. It produces about the same amount of light as a typical 65W incandescent downlight, but draws only 12W— better than an 80% energy savings. And it produces less heat (despite the worrisome appearance of its large heat sink in the photo), reducing summertime household cooling loads. Yes, they're expensive, but the long-term economics make them the better buy than cheaper incandescents, and the reduced carbon load is a substantial environmental benefit. Check the economics yourself with Cree's online calculator tool at the link above.

I could go on, but this should get you started on your holiday gift list. Contact me here for more ideas!

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