How to Save Money on Home Energy

By: Zolton Cohen & Collin Dunn, Planet Green

Although you can do many free or inexpensive things in and around your home to upgrade its energy efficiency, there are times when purchasing or upgrading something in order to save money on your utility bill can make sense. Think of this as "investing in energy efficiency."

Here's an example: If your refrigerator is 15 years old or older, replacing it with a new one could reduce your energy bill by five dollars or more every month: 60 dollars a year. If that new refrigerator costs $600, you're getting a 10 percent return on your money -- much more than banks are paying on savings, checking accounts, or even certificates of deposit. And the extra bonus is that money "earned" on energy savings isn't subject to state or federal income tax. A 10 percent, tax-free return on a moderate investment? That beats leaving potentially savings-producing money like this in a bank account (where returns are low -- and also taxed).


When you invest money and time in projects like replacing windows and updating plumbing, the benefits begin immediately and keep paying off every day for the life of the house. You may save hundreds of dollars in utility bills. In this article, we will show you how to update your heating and cooling equipment, major appliances, and windows to better conserve energy and save more money. We'll also discuss how you can find a good contractor if you need help with some of these projects. Let's start by assessing your heating and cooling bills to determine the efficiency of your current home systems.

Figuring Out the Heating Payback

You've heard and read all the stories in the news about rising energy prices, and you're wondering if buying a new furnace, boiler, or air-conditioning compressor is worth the money. The short answer is that the higher energy prices go, the shorter "payback" time you'll see if you do decide to purchase new and more efficient heating and cooling equipments.

The longer answer is that it is impossible to put a firm dollar figure on exactly how much you might save by upgrading. There are too many variables -- the most important (and lately the most volatile) being the fluctuating price of heating fuel. Geographical location is also a very important factor -- and how the seasonal weather situation shapes up in your section of the country -- as is how frugally you already live in your home.

Calculating What You Pay Now

To get a quick read on some of the potential savings you could realize by upgrading your heating and cooling equipment, you can do a calculation using your previous utility bills. Though crude (and based on any fluctuation from the previous year's fuel costs), it will, at least, give you an idea about how much you could save and whether the expenditure is worth considering in your particular circumstance.

The first task is to find out how much you spent on gas and electricity the previous year during the months when you weren't typically using gas, oil, or electricity to heat or cool your home. Your lowest utility bills of the year will usually be in the spring and fall. Find a few bills from these months and average them together to come up with a "typical" no-heating and no-cooling expense month. This will give you a "base load" figure. In other words, this is what you typically spend every month for water heating, cooking, clothes drying, lighting, and other uses that do not involve turning on the major heating and cooling equipment. Multiply the base load figure by 12, and the sum is your yearly base load rate for gas, oil, and electricity.

Next, add up an entire year's worth of bills; say from December of one year to December of the next year. Subtract the yearly base load rate from the yearly total bill, and what is left over is what you spent on heating and cooling during that year. You can further refine the process by breaking down the calculations into separate gas, oil, or electricity categories.

With these numbers in hand, you'll be better able to decide whether or not it makes sense to upgrade to higher-efficiency mechanical equipment.

Efficiency Ratings -- What Do They Mean?

Furnaces and boilers are categorized by their "annualized fuel-utilization efficiency" rating, or AFUE. You'll see those rating numbers, expressed in percentages, when you research heating equipment or talk to a contractor about having new equipment installed.

As an example of how the AFUE ratings could have an effect on your heating bill, say your present forced-air gas furnace is 15 years old and is operating at about 75 percent efficiency (considered to be standard for that era). Your utility bill for the entirety of last year was $2,000. Your base load rate for gas and electricity was $80 per month, or $960 for the year. That means you spent about $1,040 to heat and cool your home last year ($2,000 for the entire year's bills minus $960 base load).

Of that $1,040 about 70 percent, or $728, was spent on natural gas, while $312 was for electricity. So, it cost approximately $728 to heat your home last year.

If you have a 95-percent-efficient furnace installed to replace your 75-percent model, you should save about 20 cents per gas-heating dollar or about $146 over the course of one year. Since super-high-efficiency furnaces cost about $1,000 more than the standard units, it would take almost seven years to pay that amount back based on energy savings alone ($1,000 divided by $146 equals 6.8 years).

However, here's the big variable that calculation does not take into account: increasing gas prices. We now know that global atmospheric and political conditions can throw even the best price predictions for a loop. If fuel prices increase, the savings will be larger and the pay-back time shorter. And even if gas prices don't go up, a tax-free "return" of about 5 percent per year (say, $3,000 for a new furnace, yielding about $146 in energy savings a year) isn't too shabby an investment. Also, the blower-fan motors in new furnaces use electricity more conservatively, so you'll reduce electrical consumption, contributing to the savings.

Homeowners who live in colder locations use more heating fuel and thus can realize faster payback periods. Those who live in climates that require more cooling than heating will benefit more from high-efficiency air-conditioning units than they would investing in higher-efficiency heating equipment.

In the United States, about 75 percent of residential heating is delivered through forced-air systems, and the average age of those furnaces is 17 years, while 25 percent are more than 20 years old. Since the average yearly utility bill is about $1,500, there is reason to consider an upgrade if you have an older furnace.

In the next section, we will discuss how furnaces operate, and why the newer ones are more efficient.


Replacing the Furnace

From the 1950s through the early 1980s, most furnaces had AFUE efficiency ratings of about 65 percent. That meant approximately 35 percent of the heat the furnace produced was lost up the fluepipe. Over the last couple of decades the AFUE rating of all furnaces has risen to the point that some boast 97-percent efficiency.

Currently, national standards require that furnaces yield a minimum of 78-percent efficiency. It is possible to purchase one with nearly any efficiency rating between 78 percent and 95 percent, depending on what features are most important to you and how much you can afford.


The furnaces at either end of the spectrum differ markedly in how they operate. It's important to know the difference between how each functions before talking with a contractor about possibly replacing yours.

Comparing Furnace Types

A basic fact about all forced-air furnaces is that they need to mix air with the fuel they burn to combust that fuel properly. How a furnace gets that air is one dividing line between lower- and high-efficiency furnaces. Lower-efficiency furnaces draw combustion air from the room in which they are installed; high-efficiency furnaces draw combustion air directly from outside the house. Why is this important?

Every time the burner on a standard-efficiency furnace starts up, it draws air into the combustion chamber. That air is burned along with the fuel and sent up the fluepipe. The air comes from within the house -- and therefore has been previously heated by the furnace. And as the furnace draws in air to burn, new air has to come from somewhere to replace that which is being burned up and vented outside. Additional air is drawn into the house through cracks and gaps in the exterior walls and ceiling. This creates dry conditions (exterior air is extremely dry in the winter), drafts, and inefficiency, because the incoming cold air has to be heated by the furnace.

By comparison, a super-high-efficiency, or "sealed-combustion," furnace draws its combustion air from outside the house via a PVC plastic pipe. Since the combustion air is coming directly into the firebox from outside, room air is not being burned up and vented out the flue. Because there is no demand for additional air drawn from within the house, there is no continual influx of cold, dry air from outside. The result is much greater efficiency, fewer drafts, not as many problems with dry air, and a warmer, more comfortable house.

It should be said, however, that building codes require an air-intake pipe that provides outdoor air in the vicinity of fuel-burning heating and water-heating equipment. This allows the burners to draw air from outside the house for combustion, but the intake is not as controlled as it is with sealed combustion units. And many older homes with equipment installed before the code requirement lack an air-intake pipe.

Assessing Furnace Speeds

While 95-percent-efficiency furnaces offer homeowners the greatest benefit in terms of energy savings, lower AFUE-rated units have also been upgraded to provide better comfort and efficiency. One feature showing up on many sub-90-percent newer furnaces is two-stage or variable speed burners.

Older furnaces had only one firing capacity; the burner was either on or it was off. On a chilly -- but not cold -- day, that meant the furnace might come on for only a few minutes and then shut off again, having quickly raised the indoor temperature. Running a furnace that way is inefficient. It can be compared to starting a car to drive only a few blocks, then shutting it off only to turn it on again to drive a few more blocks. Cars and furnaces are both more efficient when they can run at their optimum operating temperatures.

Two-stage and variable-speed furnaces use sensors to control the flow rate of the fuel through the burner. On chilly -- but not cold -- days, the furnace runs at the low setting, but for a longer period of time. This allows it to operate at the most efficient temperature and without the many stops and starts that create inefficient burning. On cold days it burns at full capacity to accommodate the more demanding heat load. Most two-stage and variable-speed furnaces run at low settings approximately 90 percent of the time.

In addition to saving money, running the burner and blower longer at low settings distributes air in rooms more evenly and pushes more air through the furnace filter, which results in cleaner air.

Running Silent

In recent years, furnace manufacturers have been making furnaces quieter as well as more efficient. Virtually any newer model will be quieter than one ten years old or older. The interiors of the metal cabinets are lined with sound-absorbing material, and blower-fan blades are engineered and balanced to reduce noise.

Two-stage and variable-speed furnaces are especially quiet. A burner firing at low capacity produces less noise than one firing at full throttle, and the blower-fan speed can be reduced to integrate with the lower heat output. The combination hushes the sound of the air rushing from the heat registers.

Other Furnace Considerations

While furnaces have evolved over the years to offer greater comfort and efficiency, they have also become more complex. Instead of simple controls and moving parts that could be repaired or replaced by virtually anyone -- even in some instances a handy homeowner -- the furnaces on the market today are run by computers. And instead of a simple service call to a local furnace installer if your furnace breaks down, it requires a visit from a highly trained technician.

That simple $20 part replacement is a thing of the past, too. If a computer motherboard needs replacing in a modern furnace, the charge can run into hundreds of dollars.

The good news is that new furnaces are reliable and durable, and most offer generous warranties.

Replacing your boiler or air-conditioning system also can reduce your utility bills. In the next section, we will review tips on replacing your boiler or AC.


Replacing the Boiler and Air-Conditioning Systems

Just about everything said about new furnaces can be applied to new gas- and oil-fired boilers. They're smaller, more efficient (some have AFUE ratings similar to those on furnaces), quieter, and more sophisticated, and some have variable-capacity burners.

High-end boilers offer sealed combustion, which eliminates the consumption of house air burned up and vented outside when the burner fires. Sensors mounted outside the house can record the temperature and adjust the boiler's water temperature to the conditions outdoors.


Features like these make boiler installation more expensive and the systems more complex but also much more energy-efficient than previous models.

So what should you do about replacing your old furnace or boiler? Because every house and every situation is different, it is impossible to say whether or not a replacement furnace or boiler would make good economic sense for you. But if you have a large house, if you live in a cold climate, or if the price you pay for gas or oil is high, the scale tips in favor of the higher-efficiency models.

If your house is small or you live in a temperate climate, paying a premium for a super high-efficiency furnace makes less sense from a strictly economic standpoint. In that case a less expensive two-stage or variable-speed furnace or a simpler boiler might be the better value. A quality HVAC installer will take time to analyze your specific situation and can recommend the best options for your needs and budget.

Remember to consider the actual cost of heating your home -- not your entire energy bill -- using the simple calculation spelled out earlier in this chapter. At some point, if your heating bill is relatively low to begin with, the savings difference between an 80-percent and a 95-percent furnace doesn't amount to enough to make the larger investment worthwhile.

Also, check into whether your utility company or state energy office offers a rebate toward higher-efficiency heating and cooling equipment. Some do, and the amount tendered can sometimes pay the difference between a lower and a higher-efficiency model.

Qualified Installers

Whatever you decide, if you do opt for a new furnace or boiler, be sure you are satisfied with the skill and integrity of the installer before you hire out the work. The quality of the installation matters most. Sloppy or careless work on even the best brand of HVAC equipment will result in a less-than-ideal setup that might require repeated call-backs and more time than you're willing to spend.

Be sure the installer makes a thorough energy audit of your house before you start talking about a specific furnace or boiler. One key component in how well HVAC equipment performs has to do with whether or not it is sized correctly for the anticipated heating load. Such factors as window size, number, and placement; attic and sidewall insulation; square footage of habitable space; and other items need to be accounted for in a sizing calculation. Installers use what is called a Manual J spreadsheet to arrive at the correct heat load, and from that they can recommend an ideal size furnace or boiler.

Be sure, too, if you have plans to increase the size of the house (for instance if you're going to add an addition) or its heating space (a finished basement perhaps) that the contractor knows of these impending larger demands on the heating system so it can be sized accordingly. The boiler or furnace capacity must properly fit the space it will heat. Otherwise, it will run inefficiently, might cost more than it should, and won't provide the comfort it was designed to deliver.

Replacing the Air-Conditioning Unit

Air-conditioning compressors are rated by their seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) numbers. SEER designates the efficiency you can expect from your air-conditioning system. Higher numbers mean better efficiency. Federal regulations now mandate better energy conservation: As of 2006, only air conditioners rated 13 SEER and higher are available. If you have an older A/C compressor that you typically run a lot during the summer and you own a large house, purchasing a higher SEER unit could make economic sense.

Here's an example of how a replacement upgrade can save electrical energy and money: An older 10-SEER air conditioner requires 1,200 watts of power to produce one ton of cooling (12,000 BTUs). Every point upward results in approximately a 5 percent increase in energy efficiency. A 15-SEER rated A/C unit would consume only about 800 watts to produce that same one ton of cooling.

So, if you have a three-ton capacity A/C unit (a relatively common size), and your electrical cost is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, the older 10-SEER unit will cost about 43 cents if operated continuously for an hour. (1,200 watts x 3 equals 3,600 watts. 3,600 watts divided by 1,000 equals 3.6 kilowatt-hours x 12 cents equals 43.2 cents).

Running a 15-SEER A/C of the same capacity for the same amount of time would cost 28.8 cents. (800 watts x 3 equals 2,400 watts. 2,400 watts divided by 1,000 equals 2.4 kilowatt-hours x 12 cents equals 28.8 cents.) That 14.4-cent difference for every hour of operation could add up to substantial savings over the course of a hot summer. And bear in mind that, due to deterioration and inefficient design, many A/C systems ten years old and older may be operating at only 6-9 SEER.

The highest-efficiency central A/C units on the market today are rated at about 17-18 SEER.

Quieter While Operating

Another advantage of new A/C units is that they run more quietly than previous models. This can be an important factor if you spend time outdoors around your house or if you have nearby neighbors. It's also important if you have bedrooms located close to where the outdoor compressor is situated.

Variable Speed -- Two Stage

As A/C units evolve and become more efficient, engineers devise new ways of making them work harder to achieve better comfort. One recent innovation is to equip air conditioners with two-stage compressors, which are somewhat similar to a two-stage furnace. On warm -- but not hot -- days the compressor runs using only the lower stage.

This provides adequate cooling, but the compressor runs more quietly and for a longer period of time, which gives the system more of an opportunity to remove moisture from the air. The lower the humidity indoors, the higher you're likely to set the thermostat, which results in energy savings.

Variable-speed blowers alter the speed of the blower motor to most efficiently match the output of the air conditioner's compressor and condenser. This translates into better use of the available amount of cooling, less electricity consumption, and lower energy bills.

Installation Advancements

Like a heating system, a cooling system has to be installed correctly and sized accurately in order to work well and maintain the efficiency for which it was designed.

For years it was common for installers to place oversize air-conditioning units in homes in order to avoid claims of insufficient cooling in the summer. This practice means an air conditioner runs for short periods of time on many days, cools the house off rapidly, and then shuts down until the thermostat calls for cooling again. The result is a home that cools quickly but doesn't run air through the evaporator coil in the furnace long enough to achieve good dehumidification -- in other words, a cold but clammy house. Homeowners respond by turning down their thermostats to the point that dehumidification does take place, but at the expense of keeping the house much cooler than it needs to be.

Installers now use computer software to incorporate such information as window size and placement, insulation found in attics and sidewalls, square footage, orientation and geographical location of the house, and other factors into their sizing calculations. This enables them to precisely determine which air conditioner suits a particular house. In addition, two-stage and variable-speed A/C systems are capable of adapting themselves to provide just the right amount of cooling and dehumidifying needed for virtually any situation.

In the next section, we'll take a look at replacing your plumbing in order to improve home energy efficiency.


Replacing the Water Heater

Consider the plumbing of your home. Did you know that 20 percent of a typical household energy bill goes toward heating water? You should keep that in mind in your quest to conserve energy and curb spending.

A Tankless Job

Visitors to Europe and other overseas locales are often confronted in their hotel rooms by wall-hanging tanks that their hosts inform them are instant water heaters. The tanks contain a burner or electrical heating element that heats water flowing through the unit. Open a hot-water tap, and the burner or heating element comes on; shut the tap, and the burner or element shuts off, and water heating ceases.


Tankless water heaters are energy-efficient in large part because they have virtually none of the "standby" heat loss that is inherent in the standard tank- or "storage-"type water heaters in this country. During the hours between uses, heat from a 40- or 50-gallon conventional water heater tank is eventually transferred to the surrounding air, and the burner or heating element activates in order to keep the volume of water in the tank hot. The standby heat loss also contributes to the cooling load of an air-conditioning system during the summer.

Another advantage to using a tankless water heater, though it has nothing to do with energy savings or efficiency, is that you never run out of hot water. You can take one shower or bath after another, and you never have to wait for water in a tank to heat up sufficiently to make it tolerable.

Newer models of tankless heaters contain variable-capacity burners that automatically adjust their firing to the volume and temperature of the water passing through the heat exchanger, resulting in more efficient heating and more precise output temperature. Ignition is supplied by a sparking device, eliminating energy loss due to a standing pilot light. Tankless water heater burners are also more efficient than storage water heater burners.

Manufacturers continue to refine the mechanics on tankless water heaters. They are now available for purchase at plumbing supply houses, lumberyards, and home centers in the United States. Below are some aspects to consider before buying a tankless water heater.

What size?: Installing a tankless water heater in a home is more complicated than one might think. You can't simply replace a standard tank-type water heater with a tankless model. A key issue is sizing the new unit correctly. Tankless water heaters are rated by their ability to raise the temperature of the water coming into the unit at a certain flow rate. One complaint some have about these devices is that if they aren't sized properly, they aren't capable of delivering enough water to serve several uses at the same time. Both of these problems are usually due to the unit being undersized for the anticipated usage. Another complaint is that when multiple people in a house attempt to use the hot water simultaneously, nobody gets enough of it.

Lower water volume: Say you live in Michigan, it's winter, and the water coming into your home is a frigid 38 degrees. It takes a lot of energy to heat that water to a usable 120 degrees or so.

To ensure the water is being heated to the correct temperature, a tankless water heater might have to slow the flow rate through the heat exchanger. This can result in a lower-than-expected volume of water at the hot-water tap or shower.

Or, given the same geographical and climatic situation, if two people in the house want to use hot water at the same time, those two users might have to share the hot water coming out of the water heater -- and neither is likely to be satisfied with how much they are getting.

The key to avoiding these problems is to purchase a tankless water heater with enough capacity to deal with any circumstance -- or to accept and work around some of the limitations of a smaller model.

Other tankless implications: A quirk about tankless water heaters is that they require a certain flow rate through the unit in order to activate the switch that turns on the burner. Unless you're using a half gallon of water per minute, the burner won't fire, and you won't get any hot water. Tankless heaters also require 5-15 seconds to heat water to its desired temperature. In large homes where there are already long waits for hot water, the additional time it takes to reach the user may seem interminable, and it also wastes water.

On the plus side, many tankless water heaters are only about the size of a large suitcase, and they are designed to hang on a wall. This can free up valuable floor space.

Installation issues: If you decide to look further into installing a tankless water heater, be aware that you will likely have to deal with some gas piping, fluepipe, and electrical issues. The gas units (which have the highest capacity, and thus are the most popular type) require a flue to vent combustion by-products created by the burner's firing. Because burners on tankless water heaters require a high volume of gas, they require a larger-than-normal flue to safely vent the combustion gases. So you usually can't simply replace a standard tank-type water heater with a tankless one and expect to hook up the flue to the chimney where the old water-heater flue used to go.

New models of tankless water heaters, like sealed combustion furnaces, can vent out a sidewall through a plastic PVC pipe, thus eliminating the need to upsize an existing fluepipe. However, if an old tank-type water heater shares its flue with the furnace, removing that old flue pipe in order to install a sidewall-vented tankless water heater could mean that the furnace flue will have to be downsized to safely handle the furnace-only flue gases. It gets complicated, and that's why installing a tankless water heater, while beneficial from an energy-efficiency standpoint in most cases, needs to be thought through carefully, and it is probably not an ideal do-it-yourself project.

Because of a tankless water heater's outsized burner capacity, gas piping might have to be replaced with a larger size in order to deliver the amount of gas necessary for the water heater to operate correctly. And most tankless water heaters require electricity to operate, meaning a new receptacle might have to be added if one is not already within six feet of the planned installation. Dependence on electricity, of course, means the water heater won't heat water during power outages, though some of the newest models on the market are designed to operate without outside power. The heat exchanger inside a tankless water heater requires periodic descaling in hard-water areas, using a mild acid liquid, but the service life of the unit should be 20 years or more.

Finally, the initial cost of a tankless water heater is usually several times that of a storage-type water heater. Additional money is often required for installation expenses. But if you use a lot of hot water and can live with some of a tankless water heater's quirks, then investing in one can result in energy savings over its lifetime.

You can also consider energy efficiency when buying other appliances for your home. In the next section, we'll give you some tips for buying economical refrigerators, dishwashers, and more.


Buying Appliances

In 1992, the federal government developed an energy-efficiency rating program called "Energy Star." Energy Star is now jointly administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). The Energy Star Web site at provides appliance ratings and tips on improving the energy performance of your home and business.

The appliance-labeling program, perhaps the most visible of Energy Star's endeavors, rates major appliances and provides information that allows consumers to make energy-wise choices about these products. Below are some guidelines to consider.


How Much Can New Appliances Save?

Energy Star-qualified appliances exceed federal energy-efficiency standards by 10 to 50 percent. As an example, Energy Star-rated refrigerators use better-quality insulation, more efficient compressors, and more sophisticated temperature-control mechanisms, delivering 15 percent better energy savings than other models that only meet the current government standards.

Because a refrigerator typically uses the most energy of any appliance in a household, these energy improvements can make a noticeable difference in energy and money saved. Energy Star-rated freezers use the same improvements to yield at least a 10-percent premium on energy savings.

Similar numbers show up in ratings for dishwashers, clothes washers, dehumidifiers, ceiling fans, and HVAC equipment. And while Energy Star-rated appliances and electronic devices usually bear a higher price tag than models without the Energy Star rating, the extra cost is more than made up in savings over the lifetime of the product.

Energy Star-rated appliances like dishwashers and clothes washers make the most sense in homes where these are frequently used. Larger homes, or ones that are located in severe climate areas like the north or the south, can save by using Energy Star-rated heating and cooling equipment.

And here's an energy-saving tip that is appropriate anywhere: If you have an older refrigerator or freezer in your garage or basement for beverages, get rid of it. You might be spending up to 25 dollars a month just to keep such an antiquated energy hog going. Plus, a hot garage environment makes the inefficient compressor work even harder to achieve cooling.

Washing Machine Trends

Front-loading clothes-washing machines are considered the standard in Europe and also in commercial applications in this country. Expensive energy sources and smaller living spaces drive the overseas use of these machines, and now they're starting to replace top-loading washing machines in this country.

The advantages of front loaders in terms of energy savings alone are compelling, but they have other features that recommend them as well. Front-loading machines use only one third to one half of the water that conventional top loaders do. Because some wash water needs to be heated, reducing the volume used means the water heater doesn't have to produce as much, resulting in energy savings -- with water savings as a bonus.

Some new clothes washers include a heating element that can be activated much like the one in a dishwasher to heat water in the machine higher than the temperature the household water heater produces. This feature can be used for special purposes, for instance to sanitize baby wear or to wash sheets and pillowcases during cold and flu season.

Front-loading washing machines clean clothes by dropping them through and dipping them into water repeatedly during the wash cycle instead of swishing them back and forth, as is the norm in top-loading washers. The drum spins on a horizontal axis rather than a vertical one. Tests indicate that this type of washing action cleans clothes better and more gently. Front loaders also use high-speed rinse and water-extraction cycles -- some can spin the drum at 1,400 rpm, which yields more thorough removal of water and soap residue.

Because higher spin speeds remove more water, clothing needs less time to finish drying, which yields savings. Shortened drying times also mean clothing items have less contact with each other in the high-heat environment, helping the fabric last longer.

Front-loading washing machines and matching dryers can be stacked atop one another, saving valuable floor space. This means that the laundry pair might be able to fit into an area where a conventional side-by-side setup couldn't go. And many people find it is easier to load and remove clothes from a front-loading machine.

Another advantage of front-loading washing machines is that, because they use less water, they require less soap and bleach to clean clothes. However, many front loaders require the use of special low-sudsing detergents in order to work properly.

Top Loader Upgrades

To keep pace with the interest in water and energy-saving front loaders, manufacturers of top-loading machines now offer models with competing features. Some new machines on the market have no central agitator. Others offer high-speed water-extraction spin cycles. Most use less water than previous designs and consequently require less soap and bleach. However, some do need low-suds detergent to operate optimally.

A trip to an appliance store or a visit to a manufacturer's Web site can help you sort through all the offerings and decide what type of washing machine best fits your individual needs.

Unrated Dryers

The Energy Star program doesn't rate dryers because they all use similar amounts of energy. Nevertheless, a good way to control the energy used to dry clothing is to turn on the automatic-drying feature on the dryer if it has one instead of a timer. This useful feature employs a sensor that measures the amount of moisture in the air exiting the dryer. Once the moisture level in that air is reduced to a certain level, the dryer shuts off. No more fuel or electricity is used than is necessary to dry a load of clothes.

The timed dryer cycle, on the other hand, will keep heating and tumbling a load of clothes even after they are dry, until the set time is finished. Not only does this waste fuel and electricity, it also unnecessarily heats and wears down the clothes, shortening their life.

Dishwasher Assessments

If you're thinking of purchasing a new dishwasher, carefully consider your needs before making a final decision. These appliances come in standard and compact sizes. If you live in a home where a lot of cooking takes place and a lot of dirty dishes are generated, the standard size is the more practical choice. Because hot water use constitutes the largest expense connected with operating a dishwasher, running it with full loads is a smart idea. If you have to load and run a compact dishwasher several times in order to clean up after a meal, it costs more in terms of hot-water usage and electricity compared to operating a larger machine one time.

Dishwashers are built with heating elements inside that boost the temperature of the water to at least 140 degrees, which sterilizes dishes. This heat boost is also necessary to allow detergent to dissolve properly and to clean as it was formulated to do. Owning a dishwasher with a water heating element means you don't have to keep the household water heater at 140 degrees to accommodate the dishwasher's needs; a practice which is both a scalding hazard and a waste of energy.

Windows can be culprits when it comes to wasting energy in your home. In the next section, we'll find out what you need to know about trading your old windows for energy-efficient replacements.


Replacing Windows

The marketplace is inundated these days with window choices. A component that was once an afterthought when a new home was being built, windows now command multiple advertising pages in builders and home improvement magazines. Windows, both for new construction and for replacement, are big business. What constitutes a good window?

Virtually any new window you purchase will have at least two panes of glass making up the glazing. Only those designed for use in unheated areas like garages are likely to have a single pane of glass.


Two-pane, or insulated, glass has proven its worth over the decades. Sandwiching air between two separated, sealed panes increases the insulative value of the glazing many times. In recent years manufacturers have even upped the ante by sealing gases like argon and krypton, which have more density and better insulative qualities than plain air, inside that space.

The glass in the assembly can also be coated with nearly invisible films, like Low-e metallic oxides, that can be manipulated to impart various properties to the window, like better heat retention or solar heat reduction.

The sash that holds the glazing is also important to the overall thermal performance of the window. Materials that offer low heat conductance, like wood, hollow or insulation-filled vinyl, or fiberglass help reduce the transference of cold inside and heat outside.

All these improvements make both replacement and original windows more energy-efficient than they've ever been. And the technology has also increased the comfort factor. Sitting next to a single-pane window in the winter can make you feel cold, even when the house itself is sufficiently warm. Heat from your body is radiated out the window. But energy-efficient glazing keeps the inside pane of glass warmer. That reflects your body heat back inside, making you feel more comfortable and saving energy.

From an energy-efficiency standpoint, one of the most important improvements to modern windows is the in-crease in the performance of weather stripping that stops air from infiltrating. Anyone who has lived (or is presently living) in a house that has leaky windows knows how the wind outside can rustle draperies inside. That leakiness adds up to wasted energy. New windows, if properly installed, won't leak air and will save energy as a result.

Window Ratings

The nonprofit National Fenestration Rating Council rates some manufacturers' windows based on air leakage, U-factor (a gauge that represents the window's rate of heat loss), visual transmittance (a measure of the amount of light the window lets into a room), and the solar-heat-gain coefficient (a measure of the solar heat gain possible through that window).

Labels on windows rated by the Council tell you what to expect from the manufacturers' products, and this information allows you to select different windows to satisfy different criteria for each area of your house. For instance, good properties to have in a southerly facing window in a house located in the northern part of the country would be a good solar-heat-gain coefficient rating, low air leakage, and an excellent U-factor. For a window in the same house facing in a northerly direction, the solar-heat-gain coefficient wouldn't be worth paying for, while the U-factor and air leakage rating would be even more important.

Installing Windows Right

Even good windows will not live up to their billing if they are installed improperly. That's why selecting an experienced, conscientious installer is important to maximize both the energy efficiency and your satisfaction with the windows you purchase.

Window installation is complex. Any part of the job that is left to chance can come back to haunt the homeowner with water leaks, dysfunctional opening and closing, poor energy performance, and air leakage -- everything you paid good money to avoid. This is particularly true when it comes to replacement windows, where old materials have to be incorporated into the new installation.

Improving Old Windows

Virtually any new window installed in an older home will improve energy efficiency. This is especially true if the old windows are in poor condition. How much could you save in utility bills? That's hard to predict. It depends on how leaky the old windows are, the quality of the windows with which you're replacing them, and the quality of the installation. But beyond the energy savings, one of the most important improvements you will likely notice right away is the way upgraded windows make a house feel cozier, quieter, warmer, and more secure.

Installing new windows in an existing home makes the house "live larger." In other words, if your old windows were so leaky that the cold made you stay away from them in the winter, you confined yourself to a smaller area of the house. If reading at night by a window made you feel cold, you retreated farther toward the middle of the house in order to stay warm. The same might be true if you upgrade your windows to block out sun or heat in southern climates. It's uncomfortable sitting in the sunlight inside if the house already feels too warm. New windows might allow you to sit near the exterior walls of the house in greater comfort, in effect increasing its square footage.

New windows can also affect your attitude about your house and neighborhood. Along with stopping air leakage, modern windows are much more effective at blocking noise. Traffic, air conditioners running in the summer, and other normal neighborhood noise might not be as distracting with new windows.

Homeowners who are either tired of or not capable of climbing ladders to clean windows outside the house will appreciate the tilt-in sash feature on most new windows. With just a flick of two buttons you have access to the exterior glass for cleaning. This saves time and is much safer than climbing a ladder to do the job.

Evaluating Old Windows

Despite all the advantages of new windows, economic or historical concerns may be a factor in considering window upgrading. While it is true that no original single-pane glass window can match the thermal performance of a new window, it's surprising how close it can come -- albeit with a lot of work.

If you own a house with historical features, it is worth considering restoring rather than replacing your original windows. There are situations when even the best new windows look out of place, and one of those is in a house that was designed and built with architecturally significant windows. While not impossible to duplicate today, such windows can be prohibitively expensive to reproduce. The solution is to make the existing windows as energy-efficient as possible.

Old windows usually require at least scraping and painting, and perhaps glazing compound replacement. You'll also need to repair broken sash cords or chains just to get them working properly and safely again. If they are in poor condition, some might require the re-gluing of joints, epoxy or wood repairs to the sash, total glass removal and re-glazing, and maybe even some replacement of cracked or broken panes.

From there, you can upgrade thermal performance by adding weather stripping around the perimeter of the window sash and along the meeting rail between double-hung windows. You can also install draft-blocking devices that plug the cord or chain holes and reduce the amount of air infiltration from those portals. To achieve the best efficiency possible, adding storm windows to either the outside of the house or to the interior will help thermal performance considerably.

If every advantage is taken, if all weather stripping is installed properly, and if storm windows are added to the outside, it is possible to achieve near-new window performance with old windows. However, while the outlay for materials to restore older windows is relatively low, the labor factor is high. This is a good job for those handy enough to do the repairs or for those with the means to hire professionals.

Older windows can last for 100 years or more if maintained attentively. Modern windows are unlikely to hold up that long.

When you are having windows or other new fixtures installed in your home, it's important to hire a reliable contractor. On the last page, we'll find out what you need to know about choosing a contractor.


Hiring Contractors

Any type of contact with a professional you hire to do work in your home is likely to create stress. You are concerned about getting the best value for your money, you don't know whom to call first or whom to hire to do a certain type of work, and you're nervous about opening up your home to someone who is likely a complete stranger. Also at risk is the integrity of the house itself. If you hire someone who does the work incompetently, what are the consequences? At stake are money, time, and your sense of security in your own home.

It is generally recommended that you get at least three estimates from contractors to do any type of work on your home. In some areas that is a tough mission to accomplish. Either there aren't many contractors around who do the particular type of work you want done, or if there are, you may have a difficult time deciding exactly whom to call from a long list. Consequently, many homeowners ask around at their workplaces, churches, schools, or at social gatherings for the names of contractors who have done similar work for their neighbors, friends, or colleagues.


Recommendations from others are often successful because you can ask them about the manner in which the contractor conducted himself or herself while on the job. Was the contractor on time for appointments? Did the project come in on budget -- and, equally important -- on time? Were the workers respectful and did they clean up after themselves? Did the quality of the job meet your expectations? But keep in mind: A contractor who did satisfactory work for one client might not perform as well for another, and the perception of that contractor might also vary from client to client.

Hiring out contracting work is in many ways risky. You don't know exactly what you're getting until the job is complete. The scope and timing of the job can change along the way; you might have personality conflicts with the people hired to do the work; the workers might find something that was not anticipated in the job that costs more money to remedy. Really, anything can happen between signing the initial contact and the final billing.

But you can increase the odds of a successful encounter with someone you hire if you do a little homework first.

Your initial task is to find out from your local building department or state building regulation office what licenses and qualifications are necessary for a contractor to do the type of work you want done in your home. Also ask about insurance requirements. It comes as a surprise to many homeowners to learn that if a worker is injured on a job site and is not covered under a contractor's Worker's Compensation policy, the homeowner -- or the home-owner's insurance -- is responsible for the injured party.

Be sure any contractor you hire has the proper regulatory qualifications, licenses, and insurance in place before you consider him for the job. Because contractors are used to being asked for documentary paperwork, those who have their bases covered with respect to these questions will have the necessary documents on hand.

After you've narrowed the search down to three or four candidates, try to meet with each to determine if you'll be able to work well together. Long projects or disruptive ones require very close contact between the homeowner and contractor. There are other contractors around with whom you might be able to forge a working relationship.

If you're comfortable with a contractor, be sure any estimates for the work you want done are written down, along with a comprehensive summary of the scope of the work, material specifications, and a timetable. Some homeowners request clauses in a contract that penalize the contractor for each day the job is unfinished after a set date -- though these are usually reserved for larger projects that might take months to complete. Be sure each party understands the part he or she will play in the work process. Communication between a contractor and a homeowner is vital for work to proceed smoothly toward a successful conclusion.

There should be a payment schedule included in the final contract. It is not unusual for a contractor to ask for a portion of the money up front in order to get started on the job. Such payments are negotiable, though the contractor might have a set percentage that he or she always works with. Be sure the contract reserves your right to withhold final payment until you are satisfied that the job has been completed as specified.

Hiring someone to work on your home might seem daunting at first. But the more time and effort you put into it -- and the better prepared you are with information you obtained up front and by asking pertinent questions -- the better your project will turn out. Millions of homeowners hire contractors to do work on their homes each year, and the majority of those jobs turn out satisfactorily for both parties. The ones that do not, however, often make headlines -- much to the detriment of the bulk of honest, hardworking, and knowledgeable contractors.

When you upgrade your home's heating and cooling systems, major appliances, and windows, you are investing in energy efficiency. If the job is too big for you, there's nothing wrong with getting some professional help as long as you know how to find the right contractor. By following the tips in this article, you will be able to make better decisions to ultimately save money on home energy.

©Publications International, Ltd.


Avoiding Phantom Power

Though it's known by a laundry list of names — phantom load, idle current, vampire power and wall wart are the most common — this "phantom energy" all does the same thing: sucks extra energy from the grid into your home when you aren't looking and you don't need it. Many gadgets, electronic devices and appliances draw power even when they're switched off or not in use, just by being plugged in, and though it may seem trivial, it can add up over time.

Chargers for cell phones, digital cameras, power tools and other gadgets draw energy even when they're not in use. Appliances like televisions, computer monitors and DVD players can also draw power whenever they're plugged into an outlet. Altogether, phantom energy can account for about 10 percent of an individual home's electricity use. It might not sound like much until you consider that cutting out that 10 percent will get you over a month of free electricity every year. Taking quick action, like unplugging your devices when they aren't use, will cut back on phantom power, though crawling behind the TV every time you're done watching can be a hassle. There are a handful of devices designed specifically to combat phantom energy, but plugging bundled devices — think TV, DVD player, and DVR, or computer, monitor, and printer — into the same power strip and then unplugging the power strip will do the job.