Household energy consumption is a topic of increasing interest among homeowners. This is for two reasons: rising energy costs and global warming.
Natural gas costs more than three times what it did 10 years ago (fortunately, its been relatively stable over the past 5 or so years, except for a post-Katrina spike), heating oil prices have shot up more than 50% over the past year, and electricity prices have been climbing as well, but at a slower rate.
A lot of concern has arisen lately over greenhouse gas emissions, which we are mostly creating by consuming energy. Our houses create almost as much greenhouse gases as our cars. This has led to home energy usage to get a lot of attention in the media.
Before you can make intelligent energy decisions, one of the first things you have to know is how you are consuming energy. According the Environmental Protection Agency, the breakdown of home energy costs is as follows:
Heating & cooling: 49%
Water heater: 13%
Clothes washer & dryer: 6%
The first thing you'll probably notice is how heating & cooling uses so much more energy than everything else for most people. Of course, this figure will vary by climate. The Canadian government estimates that 60% of Canadian household energy use is for space heating and only 3% is for air conditioning. If you're in a northern state, heating probably accounts for half or more of your energy costs, and air conditioning (if you have it) for very little. If you live in the South, air conditioning will typically account for 40-50% of your utility costs.
Unfortunately, heating & air conditioning upgrades, while bearing the greatest potential for energy savings, are usually quite costly. Sure, a programmable thermostat might cost less than $50 and help you keep your costs down a bit, and replacing your filters more often is also important, but the hugh savings come from upgrading the equipment or your insulation. Energy Star furnaces and air conditioners typically cost more than a thousand dollars more than standard units. Want an air source heat pump? That'll be another grand. However, higher efficiency units can cut your climate control costs by up to 50%.
Insulation can also reduce your heating costs a lot, but besides adding attic insulatin (which offers up to a 15% savings when added to older homes), can costs a fortune. Likewise, new windows, due to their high price, are usually only worth it if they can also improve the appearance of your home.
The other appliances involve less significant investment decisions. Non-Energy Star fridges, washers, and dryers are going to be the featureless basic models in the back corner of the store. And don't be as cheap as possible when buying appliances. A standard fridge could cost you $50 extra a year to run than a better insulated unit with a more advanced compressor. A front loading Energy Star washer could likewise use only half as much energy as a standard top loading unit.
By now you've probably heard about how much better compact fluorescent bulbs are than incandescents. They cost more, but last over 5 times as long and use 75% less energy in the process. One bulb can save up to $75 in energy over its lifetime. Hopefully the blue light doesn't bug you too much.