I Need...Warm Winters and Cool Summers

>> Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When environmentalists (like me) start spouting their mumbo-jumbo about reducing energy use at home, a common response is, "But I hate being hot!" Around here, where the humidity makes you feel like a popsicle on a hot day, that's a reasonable excuse. But if you're smart about saving energy, you won't sacrifice comfort.

I am of the school of thought that going green should not make you miserable. I had my thermostat set at 60 degrees most of the winter, but only because the winter sun warmed my apartment up to 70 most days. If it hadn't, there is absolutely no freakin' way I would have kept my thermostat so low. And you can bet that my super-sweaty husband will put his foot down if I tried going without air-conditioning this summer.

Taking care of the earth does not mean that we have to return to the days of no air conditioning or go without heat. Those were wonderful, amazing, inspired inventions! But we do need to learn to use them more wisely.

I've already mentioned that your first step in smart energy use should be to get a home energy audit. If you went the professional route, I'm sure they've already told you most of what I've provided here (and in better detail, I hope). But for those of us who chose to do-it-yourself, here are a few ideas for saving energy (and money) on heating and cooling.


  • Change your air filter regularly. Most of the time, that means monthly, but you can get filters that last longer. Just remember to change them when they are supposed to be changed.
  • Don't make your A/C or furnace work too hard.
    • Keep doors and windows closed tightly.
    • Run exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen only when you need them.
    • Close the flue in your fireplace when you're not using it.
    • Uncover all your vents.
  • Keep your air conditioning unit properly maintained. Think of it like a car - sometimes it's going to need a tune-up.
  • Cover bare floors in the winter and uncover them in the summer. Adding rugs can improve your comfort level when you're cold, while a bare floor can be cool and soothing on those hot summer days.
  • Avoid using your oven on hot days.
  • Block the sun.
    • In the summer, keep the curtains drawn when the sun is on that side of your house, or install outside awnings over your windows.
    • In the winter, use heavy drapes as extra insulation over leaky windows, but keep south facing windows uncovered to allow the sun to warm your home naturally.
  • Raise your thermostat a few degrees in the summer and lower it a few degrees in the winter.
    • Shoot for a daytime temperature of 78 degrees in the summer and 68 degrees in the winter. For each degree that you raise or lower your thermostat, you will save 3-5% off your heating/cooling costs.
    • Use a programmable thermostat to automatically raise or lower the temperature settings when you leave home or at night. (If you have a heat pump, it's probably best to ignore this advice unless you have a special programmable thermostat that can raise and lower the temperature gradually.)
  • Install and use ceiling fans. But remember that fans cool people, not rooms, so they will only save energy (and money) if you use them correctly. That means:
    • Turn the fan off when you leave a room. Think of a fan like a light - it does no good when no one is in the room to use it.
    • In the spring and fall, use ceiling fans instead of turning on the A/C.
    • In the summer, keep your thermostat set a few degrees higher than your comfort level, and turn your ceiling fans on high. Ceiling fans work along the same lines as a breeze on a hot day.
    • In the winter, reverse the direction the fan turns (usually just by flipping a switch), turn the fan on low, and keep your thermostat set lower. The fans will push air toward the ceiling, forcing the warm air down into the room.
    • Make sure you get the appropriate size fan for your room. A small fan in a large room is not going to do a good job.
  • Landscape smart.
    • Plant medium-height trees on the east and west sides of your home to block the sun when it's low in the sky.
    • Plant tall deciduous trees on the south side of your home. They'll block out the sun when it's high in the sky in the summer but allow the sun through when it's at a lower angle in the winter .
    • Plant dense evergreens on the north side of your home where they'll block cold winter winds.
  • Seal leaks and add insulation. Use this DIY Guide to Sealing and Insulating from Energy Star.
    • Seal and repair leaky air ducts to cut your heating/cooling costs by up to 30 percent.
    • Add insulation, and make sure it's installed properly. The best place to add insulation? The attic.
    • Check for air leaks around windows, doors, outlets, entrances to attics and crawlspaces, and in attics and basements. Conscious Shopper reader Frank directed me to this smoke test that you can use to find leaks around your windows and doors (although he says you could easily do it with a cigarette or smokey incense).
  • Install energy efficient windows and doors.
  • Upgrade to a more efficient A/C unit. If you live in a moderate climate, consider getting a heat pump - they are 30% more efficient than a typical air conditioner. Or take a look at geothermal heat pumps, which cost more but are even more efficient and last much longer.

Tips for the Budget Conscious
When considering energy efficiency improvements, remember to look at your spendings as an investment. The Baby Steps are easy and cheap, but they also won't save you much money. The Jogging Stride and Marathon Runner ideas may cost more, but you should be able to recoup the cost over time through savings on your energy bill.

Where I'm At
Since I'm renting, there's not much I can do right now to improve my home's energy efficiency. Still, just by doing the Baby Steps, I feel like I've been pretty successful at keeping my heating bills low during the winter. We'll see how we do as we head into the summer.

Photo by FxyLxy


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