Beating winter costs without money (Part 1)

Posted Tuesday, February 11, 2014 in Sustainable Maine

Beating winter costs without money (Part 1)

by Paul Kando

The house is old. The owners live paycheck to paycheck and spend a painful  $4,610 on energy this year, or $384 per month. They say they don’t have money left for an energy audit, let alone fixing up the homestead so it takes less fuel to heat. I think they are wrong and I am out to prove it. Could this family  reduce its energy bill by as much as 80 percent, without laying out an extra penny above their current monthly expenses, investing their time and willpower, instead of money, in permanently improving their home and increase its energy efficiency?

Anyone with basic skills can (1) Become conscious of how the house uses energy; (2)  Post the household’s monthly energy bills for all to see; (3)  Enlist the cooperation of every member of the household; (4)  Tour the house monthly to discover obvious improvement opportunities; (5) Devote three hours per week to fixing up the house, beginning with no cost, common sense improvements; and (6)  Track the energy cost savings that result and invest those savings in further improvements.

Since energy savings derive from permanent improvements, the savings are cumulative. So all you need do is wait to allow savings to accumulate between more major expenditures. In the meantime fill in with less expensive tasks or ones that can be spread out over time, like caulking/ air sealing. The art is to stay within the original energy budget – in our case $384 per month. The key  to success is not money but discipline, careful planning and accounting, and cooperation between members of the household.

Let’s follow this household, month after month, as they gradually improve their home, using only funds garnered from energy savings. They begin with posting the family’s energy bills every month on the kitchen bulletin board for all to see and creating a virtual “piggy bank-account” in which the cash equivalent of even the smallest energy cost savings is faithfully  “deposited”. Touring the house together every month, the family takes note of things that need fixing. Reducing the water heater temperature to 120ºF saves $3.33 monthly – an appropriate no cost beginning to Month 1 of their journey. During Month 2, 80 cents’ worth of foam rubber gaskets air-seal enough electrical switches to save an additional $1.07 a month in heating energy. That’s $4.95 a month in savings so far, enough to pay for a $4 tube of caulk to seal around the electrical switch-boxes as the gaskets are installed.

Month 3 sees the replacement of three incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs) at a cost of $1 each. These burn six hours a day, saving enough money to buy another 80 cents’ worth of electrical switch gaskets. Accumulated savings so far come to $10.07 per month, reducing the family’s energy bill by almost 3 percent and allowing for the purchase of a $7 can of spray foam. We also clean out the gutters, a no-cost maintenance step. Nine more CFLs follow in Month 4, along with another can’s worth of spray foam for air-sealing. Our cumulative monthly savings now stand at $33.72, so in Month 5 we can spring for 50 electrical outlet gaskets and child-proof plastic inserts for those not in use ($9.25). We also buy two more tubes of caulk ($8) and six more CFLs ($6), reducing the  monthly energy bill by $52.51 (over 12 percent) to date. In Month 6 we air seal the chimney chase, maintaining the safety-required 3" clearance all around the brick chimney. The bill for some framing lumber, nails, aluminum flashing and high temperature caulk comes to $40. We also install 10 more CFLs ($10), followed by 15 more in Month 7 ($15).

In the fall we remove all bug screens to increase winter solar heat gain through the windows, saving  $3.96 a month on the heating bill. In Month 8 we insulate 201 feet of heating and hot water pipes in the basement ($62.31) and make and install 30 square feet of interior storm windows ($40.80). We learned how to make these at a Saturday morning workshop at the Round Top Center in Damariscotta. During Month 9 an additional 50 square feet of interior storm windows follow ($68). We do this again  in Month 10 ($68). We also buy 2 more tubes of caulk ($8) and 2 more cans of spray foam ($14), to continue air sealing around the house. In Month 11 we use two additional cans worth of spray foam ($14) and install 50 additional square feet of interior storm windows ($68), ending our first year of do-it-yourself weatherization. Among other things, we have installed 180 square feet of interior storm windows, increasing indoor comfort significantly and reducing our monthly energy bill by $11.31. At  year-end we are saving $102.40 per month off our original  monthly energy bill, a respectable 29% reduction financed entirely from those energy savings. No grants or rebates were required – only a family’s determined Yankee self-reliance. Why, we did not even have an energy audit!

Heartfelt thanks to my friend and colleague Topher Belknap for all the math behind this story. It doesn’t end here. Stay tuned for a surprising conclusion next week.

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