Compassionate Conservation

In a development that makes a mockery of its own declaration that the U.S. is experiencing an energy crisis, the Bush Administration recently proposed drastic 30 percent cuts in federal programs that promote energy-efficient buildings and encourage businesses and homeowners to invest in solar and wind power.

Save Energy. © Stefan Craine / National Renewable Energy Lab
The 1999 electric bill for the Van Geet family’s energy-efficient home in Colorado was just $100. Credit: Stefan Craine / National Renewable Energy Lab

Americans make up only four percent of the world’s population, but we use 24 percent of the world’s energy. The Bush Administration, seeking to preserve this unequal global distribution, sees a solution in more domestic oil drilling in wilderness areas, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana.Even in the face of federal folly, there’s room to change our own indulgent habits this summer, starting with some minor changes around the house. Like these:

Energy Stars

energy star

Household appliances are big heat generators, with washers and dryers being major culprits. Try to run your appliances, like dishwashers and ovens, in the morning or late evening to avoid heat buildup. If possible, seal off your laundry room from the rest of your house, and consider switching to appliances that have high efficiency ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. Check the Energy Guide ratings (prominently displayed yellow stickers), which list annual operating costs and consumption. On older refrigerators, vacuum the coils at the back of the unit regularly. You may also consider tracking your energy use through special digital utility meters that display consumption information on your computer or in-house monitor. (One prototype unit, the insect-like WattBug [shown on page 46], glows green when usage is low and red when it’s high.)

Playing it Cool

Air-conditioning need not take such a huge bite out of America’s energy dollar. Switching to the most efficient Energy Star-rated air-conditioners can reduce energy bills for cooling by 20 to 50 percent. According to the Energy Star website, if all Americans switched to its labeled products over the next 15 years, energy costs would be reduced by $100 billion, and the savings in greenhouse gas emissions would equal taking 17 million cars off the road. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, if your air-conditioner is more than eight years old, it’s a good candidate for replacement. The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network recommends that room air-conditioners should have an Energy Efficiency Ratio of at least 9.0 and above 10.0 for hot climates. Central air-conditioners are ranked according to their Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, which must be a minimum of 10.0, although the best units are rated at nearly 17. You can save on air-conditioning operating costs by installing a programmable thermostat, which will turn your unit off while you’re away, and then turn it on half an hour before you return. At night, running the air-conditioner in fan-only mode will result in substantial savings. And speaking of fans, avoid using bath and kitchen fans when the air-conditioner is on, otherwise they will suck up cooled air.

© Viridian

A University of Michigan study estimates that the average American household could reduce its energy bills by 65 percent and, over the home’s lifetime, save $52,000 if it maximized energy efficiency. The Van Geet family of Idaho Springs, Colorado lives in an energy-efficient home with a total 1999 electric bill of $100. Even without an eco-home, some consumers—especially in California—are reducing their summer electric bills through a program called “air-conditioner cycling,” which allows utilities to temporarily switch off customers’ AC units during energy shortages. In exchange for losing their air-conditioning for up to a half hour every hour, consumers get small rebates of $50 to $150.

Homeowners can also check out the energy-efficiency website run by the U.S. Department of Energy at Special software enables users to input information about their homes, then learn how much could be saved by taking such energy-efficient steps as insulating the attic or installing double-glazed windows. Investments like these are paid back not only in money saved, but also in personal satisfaction. After all, who’s happy being an energy glutton?