The Hidden Costs of Home Ownership (Part 5): Appliances and Electronics

This post is contributed by Joe Truini, guest blogger at The Home Depot.

You’ve sealed drafts, checked your home’s insulation, inspected and repaired your HVAC equipment, and replaced your lighting with  energy-efficient bulbs. Now what’s left to do? Just one thing: reduce your household electricity usage.

Home appliances and electronics have come a long way in terms of energy efficiency, but it’s still important to make sure they’re not draining energy from your home. Here are a few quick ways to reduce their energy usage.

  1. Inspect appliances to estimate their energy efficiency. Energy.gov has a tool to help you get started.
  2. For household electronics, consider these tips to reduce costs and usage:
    a. Unplug electronics (coffee makers, toasters, etc.) when they aren’t in use since they can pull energy even when turned off.
    b. Utilize electronics only when needed. Install timers or smart plugs to automatically turn off devices you don’t need at certain times of day.
    c. Consider replacing old electronics with more energy-efficient models.

“Individually, most household electronics, such as TVs, stereos, computers, and other gadgets don’t add up to much energy usage, mainly because they are not in use all the time,” says Jennifer Tuohy, a green and smart home tech expert. “But in today’s technologically advanced world, we have more and more electronic gadgets in our home. Collectively, they can add up to a significant part of your electric bill.”

Tuohy decided to test her usage. “I monitored the use of my iMac® and coffee maker with an electricity monitoring plug and discovered that my iMac costs $60 a year to run and my coffee maker just $11. If you look around your home, you’ve probably got between 10 and 20 household electronics plugged in at any time, so you can see how quickly that can add up.”

She suggests 3 ways to improve and lessen the energy consumption of your household items.

 

3 easy ways to save money (and energy) at home

  1. Plug multiple electronic devices, like your home entertainment center, into a surge strip with an on/off button. That way, you can easily shut down the whole system with a press of a button and avoid sucking “vampire power” out of the grid.
  2. Invest in “smart” plugs or outlets. These can be controlled wirelessly by an app on your smartphone, allowing you to turn your devices on and off remotely. Or you can put them on schedules so they’re only on when you need them.
  3. Pick up an electricity monitoring plug and plug your devices in for a few days to see how much energy they’re using. That way, you can identify power hogs and decide whether you need to replace them with more energy-efficient models.

Every bit helps

Performing a home energy audit can be a relatively pain-free process, as long as your home has been kept up to date throughout the years. In addition to doing your own DIY audit, you can also check with your local utility provider. Many offer free home energy audits that may include specialized tests (like blower-door tests and infrared spectroscopy) to pinpoint any air leaks around your home’s perimeter.

But no matter what changes you decide to make, taking any steps to reduce your home’s energy usage can benefit you (and your wallet) greatly in the long run.

For more DIY audit tips, check out the rest of our home ownership series, where we go over leaks and drafts, insulation, heating, and lighting.

 

Joe Truini writes extensively about DIY home remodeling and repair, including performing energy audits to evaluate efficiency. He has worked as a remodeling contractor, cabinetmaker, and union carpenter. Joe is the author of 8 home improvement books, including Building Sheds and Stanley Homeowner’s Guide to Tiling, both published in 2016. He also writes for The Home Depot on home improvement topics like installing storm windows.

The Hidden Costs of Home Ownership (Part 4): Lighting

This post is contributed by Joe Truini, guest blogger at The Home Depot.

With the major energy drains of your home taken care of (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series), you can move on to smaller projects. And while it may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, replacing your lighting is a simple way to save hundreds of dollars on your energy bills each year. Lighting is also the easiest (and quickest) way to increase your home’s energy efficiency.

The 3 best light bulbs to use

  • Halogen incandescent bulbs are a more energy-efficient choice than traditional incandescent bulbs. They’re also the most common type of bulbs. An “old” 60-watt incandescent BR30 costs about $8 a year to run (based on 3 hours of use per day).
  • CFL bulbs are the small, spiraled bulbs. The 60-watt equivalent (15 w) reduces annual energy usage per bulb by 75 percent and has a lifespan of around 10,000 hours.
  • LED bulbs are the newest on the market, and while they’re more expensive, they’re the most efficient by a large margin. Each bulb reduces energy costs by 75 to 80 percent. But the best thing about these newer bulbs is their lifespan: approximately 25,000 hours.

How to replace your light bulbs

Difficulty level: easy DIY

Replacing the incandescent bulbs in your home with LEDs is the quickest and easiest way to reduce your home’s energy costs. If you decide to go with LED bulbs, the cost of replacement will be higher. But if budget is a factor, start by replacing the most commonly used bulbs in your home. Then you can work your way down from there until the entire house is completed.

Check out the rest of our home ownership series, where we go over leaks and draftsinsulation, heating, and electric appliances.

 

Joe Truini writes extensively about DIY home remodeling and repair, including performing energy audits to evaluate efficiency. He has worked as a remodeling contractor, cabinetmaker, and union carpenter. Joe is the author of 8 home improvement books, including Building Sheds and Stanley Homeowner’s Guide to Tiling, both published in 2016. He also writes for The Home Depot on home improvement topics like installing storm windows.

The Hidden Costs of Home Ownership (Part 3): Heating and Cooling Units

This post is contributed by Joe Truini, guest blogger at The Home Depot.

Part 3 of our DIY Home Energy Audit Series

Now that you’ve inspected your home for drafts and improved the insulation, it’s time to make sure your heating and cooling equipment is in good shape. Those units are the heart of your home’s energy efficiency and should be inspected for tell-tale signs of failure or potential wear and tear. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Check for rust on the ductwork of your heating and cooling units (inside the house and in the attic, wherever they may be). Shine a flashlight inside the ducts and if you notice any signs of rust, have the ducts cleaned.
  2. Examine the ducts for dirt and grime buildup to ensure the unit isn’t trying to strain or push out dirty air. If there are dirt streaks on the exterior of the duct work, that may be an indication of an air leak.
  3. Make sure the air filter return in the home is snug and fits. When replacing air filters, go for a pleated filter, which catches more dust and allergens and allows the unit to function properly.

Michael Chotiner, a former general contractor and contributor to numerous home improvement publications, stresses the importance of changing the air filter. “Most manufacturers of forced-air HVAC equipment recommend checking or changing air filters every 30 days,” he says. “In my experience, almost nobody does it that often, despite the fact that it’s the most effective practice a do-it-yourselfer can follow to maintain the efficiency of their heating and cooling systems.”

If your unit is more than 15 years old, it should probably be replaced, regardless of the condition. Always have a professional install new HVAC equipment. And don’t attempt to replace any HVAC units on your own.

How to repair ventilation issues in the ductwork

Difficulty level: Moderate

Heating and cooling units

It’s crucial to ensure the ducts are functioning properly so that your heating and cooling units aren’t working overtime. Fran Donegan, a home improvement expert and author of Pools and Spas and Paint Your Home, recommends 2 tips to keep your system in top shape.

1. Pro tip: Seal leaks! Inspect the ductwork (where air is being pushed out) in forced-air systems. Ducts that run through an unconditioned space, like a basement or attic, should be insulated.

Remember that leaks in ductwork equal wasted energy. Dirt streaks where duct sections join together indicate a leak. Seal leaks with professional-grade duct tape or mastic duct sealant.

2. Pro tip: Evaluate your HVAC equipment. First, try to determine the efficiency of your heating and cooling units. If the equipment is maintained on a regular basis, you may already have the AFUE (the annual fuel utilization efficiency for heating equipment) and the SEER (the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio for cooling equipment). If not, have an HVAC contractor maintain the system and run efficiency tests. In general, older systems — those over 10 to 15 years old — aren’t as efficient as the newer products on the market.

You should also see whether openings for items such as pipes, ductwork, and chimneys are sealed. If they aren’t, close any gaps with an expanding foam caulk or some other permanent sealant. And when sealing gaps around chimneys or other heat-producing devices, be sure to use a noncombustible sealant.

Check out the rest of our home ownership series, where we go over leaks and draftsinsulation, lighting, and electric appliances.

 

Joe Truini writes extensively about DIY home remodeling and repair, including performing energy audits to evaluate efficiency. He has worked as a remodeling contractor, cabinetmaker, and union carpenter. Joe is the author of 8 home improvement books, including Building Sheds and Stanley Homeowner’s Guide to Tiling, both published in 2016. He also writes for The Home Depot on home improvement topics like installing storm windows.

The Hidden Costs of Home Ownership (Part 2): Insulation and Ventilation

This post is contributed by Joe Truini, guest blogger at The Home Depot.

Part 2 of our DIY Home Energy Audit Series

Yesterday, we showed you how to check for drafts around your home. The next step in your energy audit is to evaluate your insulation and ventilation.

Insulation is key to ensuring your home is energy efficient. Without proper insulation, you could be losing a great deal of energy through your ceiling and attic, where the majority of air usually escapes.

“Recessed light fixtures in ceilings — especially when they protrude up into an attic floor frame — can provide an undetected path for leakage of heat and air,” says Michael Chotiner, a former general contractor and contributor to numerous home improvement publications. “You can often see evidence of such leaks in patches of dirt and dust that collect on attic insulation in proximity to a fixture, and they can have considerable impact on your energy bills and comfort.”

To stop any leaks, Chotiner suggests covering the fixture. “You can’t bury a fixture under insulation that is not IC-rated (IC stands for “insulation contact”) or otherwise impede heat dissipation around it — that would create a fire hazard,” he says. “But you can build a box, place it over a recessed fixture, and secure it with spray-foam adhesive to close off air pathways safely.”

Chotiner also advises checking junction boxes for air leaks. “Junction boxes for outlets and switches mounted on perimeter walls of a home are prime locations for drafts and energy loss — even in insulated walls. You can stop the drafts and prevent losses by injecting spray foam around the boxes and installing gaskets under switch and receptacle trim plates.”

Additionally, the ventilation ducts inside the home (whether they are on the ceiling or in the floor) could have gaps and you could be losing energy there over time.

How to check your current insulation

Pro tip: Before you start, have a flashlight on hand for examining potential issues in the attic and a tape measure or ruler for measuring insulation levels.

1. Know your material
Difficulty level: easy DIY

First and foremost, knowing what sort of insulation you have is important when repairing or filling gaps. The 2 most common forms of insulation in the attic are fiberglass and cellulose blown-in insulation.

  • Fiberglass insulation is lightweight and doesn’t settle. Typically, it’s white or pink and billowy. Fiberglass is the most commonly used type of insulation, but it isn’t as energy efficient as cellulose.
  • Cellulose insulation is usually recycled paper. It settles a bit more because it’s denser, but it’s also more environmentally friendly in the long run, both because it’s a nontoxic recycled product and because it has better insulation rates. It’s also better at slowing down the air flow, which means it’s more efficient during cold weather. And cellulose is treated with a flame retardant to prevent it from becoming a fire hazard.

Some attics may be insulated with “batts” or rolls of insulation. If any of these are torn or missing, you may want to call a professional to replace them. Chotiner also notes that upgrading your insulation may prove better in the long run because loose-fill and batt insulation (cellulose and fiberglass) in exterior walls, ceilings, and basement perimeter walls can eventually get damp and/or settle, losing their insulating ability. Chotiner recommends expanded polystyrene and spray foam insulation (both waterproof) when budgets allow.

Do you have enough insulation?

Once you figure out what sort of insulation you have in your attic, it’s time to see if you have enough in place.

a. Locate the hatch or attic entry (bring your flashlight!).

b. Measure the average depth of the attic insulation with a ruler and make sure it’s the appropriate R-Value.

  • R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. You can use this calculator to estimate your attic’s R-Value. The higher the R-Value, the better the thermal performance of the insulation.

The depth of your insulation depends on the region in which you live. Consult the diagrammed map below to make sure you have the appropriate R-Value.

Map of the United States showing different temperature zones for insulation purposes

(Source: energystar.gov)

Zone Add Insulation to attic Floor
Uninsulated attic Existing 3–4 inches of insulation
1 R30 to R49 R25 to R30 R13
2 R30 to R60 R25 to R38 R13 to R19
3 R30 to R60 R25 to R38 R19 to R25
4 R38 to R60 R38 R25 to R30
5 to 8 R49 to R60 R38 to R49 R25 to R30

c. Make sure the insulation is evenly spread and there aren’t any missing or open areas. During installation, be sure to wear gloves, a long-sleeve shirt, pants (not shorts), eye goggles, and a dust mask.

Pro tip: To protect yourself from the itchy glass fibers, dust your neck and wrists with a liberal coating of baby powder. The powder will help prevent the fibers from sticking to your skin, even when sweaty.

How to install your insulation

2. Installation
Difficulty level: moderate (call a pro!)

If your attic insulation isn’t up to speed, it’s time to decide whether or not you want to blow in the insulation yourself or have professionals do the job.

You’ll need to rent an insulation blower, which breaks apart the insulation and pushes it through a hose into the attic. Typically, the hose is 100 feet long, so it can reach throughout the entire attic.

Caution: If you’re walking around in your attic, make absolutely certain that you can see the floor or the beams you’re stepping on. This may require pushing insulation out of the way. If you miss a step, you could end up falling through your ceiling. The best way to avoid this is to hire professional insulation installers to take care of the job.

In your quest to become a home maintenance maven, Check out the rest of our DIY audit series, where we go over leaks and drafts, heatinglighting, and electric appliances. Then, you can prevent home disasters.

Joe Truini writes extensively about DIY home remodeling and repair, including performing energy audits to evaluate efficiency. He has worked as a remodeling contractor, cabinetmaker, and union carpenter. Joe is the author of 8 home improvement books, including Building Sheds and Stanley Homeowner’s Guide to Tiling, both published in 2016. He also writes for The Home Depot on home improvement topics like installing storm windows.

The Hidden Costs of Home Ownership (Part 1): Air Leaks and Drafts

This post is contributed by Joe Truini, guest blogger at The Home Depot.

Part 1 of our DIY Home Energy Audit Series

Buying a home can be an exciting time. It can also be nerve-wracking and extremely time consuming: you have to find a home within your budget that’s the right size and layout, with curb appeal to boot.

Something you might overlook, however, is the home’s energy consumption — a source of hidden monthly costs that can add up to higher bills and less spending cash.

Performing an energy audit on a home is key to reducing your monthly costs and ensuring efficiency in all areas. It can help distinguish between user-based energy and energy wasted through leaks or outdated lighting and equipment. An energy audit can also significantly reduce your bills in the long run and help you save money, according to the budget experts at Money Crashers.

“Think of it this way: if you can find 5 ways to save $5 per month on your home energy bills, that equates to $300 of annual savings,” they explain. “That’s the best way to approach this strategy. In the long run, you’ll generate plenty of extra cash to help out your budget, improve your retirement savings, or even beef up an emergency fund.”

Fortunately, a do-it-yourself energy audit is an easy and affordable way to examine how your home works and a chance to correct any energy-sucking culprits. Solutions that save significant money may be as simple as replacing missing storm windows or adding insulation.

An audit is also a good idea for anyone who already lives in their home and would like to reduce their monthly energy costs. Plus, according to Money Crashers, “The repairs and upgrades needed [to conserve energy] usually aren’t that expensive to complete.”

In our weeklong series, you’ll find out how to perform your own DIY energy audit. And the best place to start is with a thorough inspection for air leaks and drafts.

3 ways to spot (and repair) air leaks and drafts

1. Inspect your windows and doors
Difficulty level: easy DIY

a. Check the corners on the inside and the exterior for any gaps between the house, the window, and the door frames. Extreme cold and heat can cause the window frames to contract and expand, leaving gaps and creating drafts.

Make sure the windows and doors don’t move or shift when pushed and pulled. If the doors or windows stick when they’re opened, it’s likely there’s a gap or track issue where air can come through.

b. Hold your hand up against the corners or sides of the window and door frames inside the home. Do you feel air seeping through? If so, you may need to fill the space with caulk or silicon.

Pro tip: Use incense to detect drafts more precisely. Slowly pass a burning incense stick around the inside of a window — the slightest breeze will make the smoke dance, indicating the exact location of the draft.

c. Check the material of your windows and doors. Aluminum and wood doors and windows can shift more dramatically than those made of vinyl, which are able to fluctuate and adapt through extreme temperature and foundation shifts.

d. Do all the windows and doors open and close properly? If the sash or sliding door frame sticks and is difficult to open, these are signs the frame has shifted significantly and may need to be replaced.

e. Do the windows and patio doors have argon gas between the panes or low-E film? There should be a small sticker or indicator on the frame (typically the sash), indicating the energy rating of the window and patio door.

  • Argon gas is a colorless, odorless gas that’s more than twice as dense as oxygen. Modern windows have argon gas injected between the panes of glass, which slows the penetration of heat from sunlight or cold air through the windows.
  • Low-E film is an invisible cover on windowpanes, which serves as a reflective surface. Low-E bounces sunlight away from the window, diverting heat.

2. Repair your windows and doors
Difficulty level: moderate

If there are noticeable gaps or drafts around the frame of the windows and doors, use caulk or silicon sealant to fill the openings. Choose a color-matching caulk for the exterior or a clear silicon for the interior.

  • Lightly squeeze the caulk gun trigger until a small amount of sealant emerges.
  • Run a line of sealant smoothly across the gap or opening, making sure the tip of the caulk gun is in contact with the frame.
  • Use your finger or a small edge to smooth out the sealant and make it look seamless.

3. Replace your windows and doors
Difficulty level: call a pro!

If you notice significant drafts, or your windows and doors don’t open or close properly, replacements may be necessary. If this is the case, attempting to replace windows and doors on your own isn’t recommended. Consult professionals to order window and door styles and schedule an installation.

Aside from considering the look and style of the windows, consider both argon gas and low-E film in the windows to ensure they are as energy efficient  as possible. New vinyl windows also come with air chambers inside the frame, reducing the impact that cold or heat may have on the home.

Pro tip: If the sashes are in disrepair but the window frame is in good condition, have a professional install a sash-replacement kit. They provide an easy and affordable way to upgrade the overall performance and energy efficiency of a window. The new sashes will fit snugly into the existing frame while eliminating the expense of installing a whole new window.

Other possible draft areas

Doors and windows aren’t the only places where air could be escaping the home.

  • If you have a chimney, inspect the flange around the outside for any spaces. There are specific asphalt sealants you can use with your caulk gun to close off any gaps around the chimney. This may require a ladder and getting onto the roof, so take extreme precautions or call a professional.
  • Take a look at the fireplace damper, electrical outlets, baseboards, or any other place where a shifting foundation could cause gaps and potential leaks.

If you spot any of these gaps or drafts, use the appropriate sealant to repair. But if the cracks are too large to properly repair with sealant, you’ll need to call a professional.

Check out the rest of our home ownership series, where we go over insulation, heating, lighting, and electric appliances.  You can also find other innovative ways to organize and upgrade your home.

Joe Truini writes extensively about DIY home remodeling and repair, including performing energy audits to evaluate efficiency. He has worked as a remodeling contractor, cabinetmaker, and union carpenter. Joe is the author of 8 home improvement books, including Building Sheds and Stanley Homeowner’s Guide to Tiling, both published in 2016. He also writes for The Home Depot on home improvement topics like installing storm windows.