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Energy Upgrade Using Fossil Savings

Paul Kando

photo credit: Mass Real Estate Law

It’s ironic that we Mainers spend $6 billion per year on imported fossil fuels—40% of that in our homes and other buildings—yet we claim we cannot afford to reduce this needless expense. There is a myth I’d like to debunk before going any further: that we have to have some up-front cash to weatherize our houses. In fact, we can improve a home’s energy efficiency even if we don’t have any free cash. What we must have, however, is self-discipline and a willingness to do some work.

The list of recommendations below comes from an earlier column, which described an energy-audited midcoast home with a $4,610 annual energy bill.

Recommendation, (7 year payback) 1st year savings1 Break even cost2
Lower hot water temperature to 120ºF$40(no cost)
Remove window screens for winter$96(no cost)
Seal air leaks$1,420$18,736
Insulate crawl space / basement ceiling(s)$834$11,000
Install interior storm panels$211$1,268
Insulate hot water pipes$47$627
Insulate knee walls$106$1,397
Insulate attic$87$1,153
Insulate walls$432$5,702
Install heat retaining ventilation$131$1,728

The first three items above allow us to begin without any expenditure. Lowering the water temperature costs nothing, yet results in saving $40 in energy cost annually. Similarly, removing the bug screens during the winter will save $96 per year—because the screens no longer block a percentage of incoming solar heat, reducing the heating load. The two acting together save $136 per year or $11.33 per month.

The first month savings of $11.33 could be spent, say, on a set of foam gaskets with which to seal some leaky electrical outlets and switches. A set of 8 gaskets costs around $10, so we will probably spend 4 months of savings ($45.32) to seal all the outlets and switches in the house, and plug the unused ones with plastic child-safe plugs. Savings of $90.64 over the year’s remaining 8 months can be spent on tubes of caulk with which to begin sealing the many holes and cracks the energy auditors will have helpfully marked with bits of removable painter’s tape throughout the house. We may also need to install new weather-stripping on exterior doors. The savings that result from air-sealing will eventually total an annual $1,420 or $118.33 per month.

Even if we only managed to seal half the air leaks during the first year, we will start the next year with $70.50 per month of permanent savingsto spend on the remaining air sealing tasks. By the time we are done with this, savings dollars will have grown to $129.66 per month or $1,555.92 per year.

Let these savings accumulate over a few months as needed, then tackle sealing and insulating the basement ceiling. Once that’s done, the monthly savings nest egg will have grown to $199.16 (or $2,389 per year) to spend on subsequent tasks.

You get the picture. We start small, but our savings accumulate month after month—because the improvements permanently reduce energy consumption. If we are willing to contribute our labor and have the discipline to calculate, record, and reinvest our savings from the reduction of our original energy bill (in this case $4,610 per year), no up-front cash will be needed to make our house as energy efficient as we wish, guided by our energy audit report. The money we used to spend on fossil fuel will go for permanent efficiency improvements.

The next stage will be to use accumulating savings to pay for installing solar panels (or joining a solar farm), eventually converting the old homestead to a zero purchased-energy dwelling.

We will tackle that effort next time.