The houses we live in consume vast amounts of energy. To keep our deepfreezes freezing, our hair dryers hot, and the bigger screens of our lives warmed up and running we need a lot of electricity, which (depending on where you live) is typically generated through a process that also generates a lot of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Homeowners concerned with taking better care of the planet could consider a back-to-basics existence—reading by candle light and cooking dinner or heating water on a woodstove (though these options each has its own carbon footprint and emissions issues)—or they could explore alternative energy sources. However, says Sam Telleen, president of the MIT Energy Club, “the average homeowner probably isn’t ready to make the lifestyle changes necessary to living completely off the grid.”
A more practical approach, he suggests, is to improve our habits. Dialing down the thermostat at night during the winter and not running the clothes dryer on August afternoons in competition with the air conditioner are painless ways to avoid wasting energy—and they mean lower utility bills as well. A simple googling of “reduce home energy use” yields a multitude of tips on scaling back electricity consumption, from closing the drapes during the hottest part of the day to unplugging phone and camera chargers when they’re not in use. (When you’ve finished trolling for ideas, don’t forget to put your computer in sleep mode so it will use less power while it’s inactive.)
It’s also a good idea to analyze the energy efficiency of your house. Leaks in the structure, poor insulation, and single-paned windows are all major contributors to heat loss. Check that the seals on the refrigerator and oven doors aren’t allowing cold and heat to escape, and inspect the furnace and air conditioner to make sure they’re in topnotch shape. Investments in repairs and new appliances bearing the Energy Star label begin to pay off right away, says Telleen: “You’ll see an immediate difference in the amount of energy your home consumes.” Installing renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and ground-source heating systems require a larger initial investment, but are cost-effective in the long run, he adds, depending on local geography and climate. He suggests bringing in a professional to perform a home energy audit and to recommend appropriate improvements for your home and region.
“The ideal time to think about energy is during construction of a new house,” says Telleen. “New homes in the U.S. must meet a minimum energy efficiency standard based on their HVAC system, insulation, and construction materials.” New homeowners can set their goals even higher by aiming for a net-zero property, generating their own solar or wind power and working in tandem with the grid to achieve less energy consumption and fewer carbon emissions. Net metering, an agreement with the utility company, allows consumers to send their excess energy into the grid in exchange for credit against power they may require in the future. “If we learn to balance our energy production with our use, we can create a net-zero or at least a near-zero home—without significantly disrupting our way of life,” says Telleen.—Sarah Jensen
Thanks to Mark Trowbridge of Horsham, Pennsylvania, for this question.