What is Energy Efficiency? Why Does it Matter?
We spoke with an energy efficiency expert for answers
There are a lot of buzzwords around energy these days, but simply put, energy efficiency is using less energy to get a job done. And when it comes to our homes, using less energy typically means lower energy costs for things like electricity, gas, and water.
Whether you’re a homeowner or an aspiring homeowner, understanding the basics of energy efficiency can help you save money and be a better energy-conscious consumer.
To get the 411 on energy efficiency, we spoke with Tom Lienhard, a 25-year veteran of Avista and retired Chief Energy Efficiency Engineer. Tom continues to work as a consultant for homeowners and businesses that need help solving energy efficiency issues. Read on to learn Tom’s tips for saving energy and building homes that will perform for decades to come.
Tom's #1 tip for energy efficiency
We asked Tom to list the top things homeowners/future homeowners need to know about energy efficiency. He explained that most of the controllable energy used in a home is used for temperature control: heating, cooling, and water heating.
And the top ways to reduce the energy used for heating and cooling are “through reduced infiltration and increased insulation… in other words, tightening a home’s shell and insulating are the most cost-effective ways to reduce the home’s energy use.”
"through reduced infiltration and increased insulation… in other words, tightening a home’s shell and insulating are the most cost-effective ways to reduce the home’s energy use.”
So how exactly do you tighten and insulate your home? First, Tom recommends identifying how much energy you’re currently using. He shared his own energy monitoring process below.
How can I make my home more energy efficient?
To help you figure out what areas of the home need to be tightened and insulated, Tom recommended installing a device on the main electric panel to show you how much energy is being used for each of your larger plug loads.
“In my home, I use a device by Emporia Energy to watch all the energy going through the important, or most energy-intensive, circuits in my home,” said Tom.
Tom said that Sense and Eyedro also provide similar devices that help identify how much energy you’re using. Your local utility provider’s website is another source that you can turn to for insights into your energy use.
Essentially, once you’ve identified the biggest energy users in your home, you can begin to locate ways to tighten up your home and save energy.
Energy efficiency tips for home builders and homeowners
For current homeowners looking to reduce energy, Tom recommended:
Adding insulation in the attic, if necessary;
Caulking the cracks on the outside of the home;
Possibly using interior or exterior storm windows to decrease the heat loss in the winter and reduce the heat gain in the summer;
Finding out which appliance energy user in your home is causing you to spend the most money and then researching how to reduce that energy/cost; and
Maintaining all of your devices like furnaces, heat pumps, and air conditioners to make sure they use the least amount of energy possible.
If you’re considering building a new home, Tom has some great news!
“There is one low-cost opportunity to make a home tight and highly insulated, and that is if you do it when it is being built. After that, the cost of fixing a problem is three to 10 times as much as it would have been for the builder,” said Tom. “In other words, well-insulated homes that are sealed tight and have controlled airflow are more important than granite countertops.”
He said it, not us!
But don’t fret. Your energy efficiency efforts will pay off as you spend less on energy costs. And you can always upgrade to granite countertops in the future.
For homebuilders, Tom recommends designing and building a home that is positioned correctly for decreasing future energy use.
“Make the best use of windows without overdoing windows on the south and west face of the home,” said Tom. “Windows allow five to ten times as much energy transfer than walls, so installation of windows in the correct locations to increase light but decrease heat load is important when designing a home. For instance, a home that looks out on a northern view with lots of windows on the north face of the home may use 50% of the energy of the same home with the same windows facing south or west.”
“Make the best use of windows without overdoing windows on the south and west face of the home.”
Are energy efficiency policies effective?
According to Tom, a tight, highly-insulated home can save you as much as $1,000 a year in energy costs. And there are new technologies and incentives that can help with the tightening and insulating. However, many policies—like limiting fuel choice and some higher-cost electrical safety measures—may have negative or limited payback for homeowners.
To illustrate how some energy efficiency policies don’t actually save energy or reduce carbon emissions, Tom points to local building code councils.
“In the past, before it was politicized, the building code council’s job was to help buildings be safe and to increase the building’s energy efficiency to lower ongoing costs to the customers,” said Tom. “Those are still the best ways to lower carbon regardless of the fuel type that is chosen.”
Today, however, building code councils consist of fewer building professionals and councils are more inclined to focus on fuel type rather than efficiency.
“The problem with that in an area like Spokane and the Inland Northwest is that using electrical heating systems is increasing the carbon output rather than decreasing it,” said Tom. “The people who just want to get rid of fossil fuels lack the understanding that carbon production is a function not just of fuel type, but of when and where the fuel is being used.”
“The problem with that in an area like Spokane and the Inland Northwest is that using electrical heating systems is increasing the carbon output rather than decreasing it."
Eliminating natural gas as a source of energy does NOT equal energy efficiency
To illustrate the link between carbon production and when and where fuel is used, Tom offers this scenario: On a winter night when there is no sun for solar or wind for other renewable energy producers, the peak power consumption needs a boost.
“That would be a great time to use a 97% efficient natural gas furnace directly at home instead of a heat pump to reduce carbon output,” said Tom.
Instead, we’re using natural gas turbines that operate at 15-50% efficiency and the state’s code council is actively trying to outlaw the use of natural gas—even as a backup source of heat—in new home and building construction.
Policies that require heat pumps in new construction and don’t allow natural gas as a source of energy are not only increasing the cost of energy but they’re also increasing the amount of energy being used in homes. That screams more energy and less efficiency, and the anticipated reduction in carbon emissions is also missing.
“In some instances,” said Tom, “they are increasing carbon by forcing heat pumps in colder climates.”
Final thoughts from Tom
“My wish is that we quit building for the short term, and start building homes that can and will perform for 100 years,” said Tom.
Well said, Tom.