Home energy efficiency

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If you mention alternative energy or energy efficiency to an average person, they might think of things such as solar panels, wind turbines, or even geothermal systems. Many people are building “green” houses currently, and often begin their projects with the idea that they want to build a solar powered house. Or they want to build a house that’s heated geothermally. This decision is often made with the desire to be more energy efficient, to be more sustainable, and to reduce electrical bills. However, installing your own power system isn’t economically feasible for most existing buildings, nor is it the best first step towards reducing your environmental impact.

What if I said there was a simple piece of electrical technology that you could use to reduce your electrical bills, each and every month? It’s so simple even children can learn how to use it. Is it a timer perhaps? A sensor? What if I said you already have several of these in your house, just waiting to be used to reduce your energy bills? Would you believe it’s a light switch?

Have you ever heard the expression “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? This expression is referring to the tipping point, and means once a certain point is passed it is far more costly to reverse the change than it would have been to prevent it in the first place. The further away from the source your changes get the less impact they have, until you get to the tipping point.
The example I alluded to in the previous paragraph is lighting. In my apartment, the main hallway has 2 light fixtures that each held a 100w incandescent light bulb when I moved in. There’s also another fixture in the kitchen that held a 100w bulb as well. Assuming I put the lights on at 8pm when it started getting dark, and shut them off at 2am when I went to bed, that’s 6 hours per day that the lights are on. 3 lights * 100w, is 300 watts. The first thing I did was to replace the bulbs in those fixtures with compact fluorescent lights, rated at 16.7 watts each. The electrical draw from these 3 lights is now 50.1w, with roughly the same light output. This is roughly 1/6 the energy demand, and therefore 1/6 the operating cost. However, that doesn’t mean I leave the lights on 6 times as long just because the cost is the same. The new lights only draw a fraction of the power that the old lights did, but even the most wasteful incandescent bulb draws no power when it’s switched off.
People always want the high tech sexy options like solar power, or fancy light fixtures, but the simplest, cheapest, and most basic way to improve efficiency for any system is to simply reduce the energy it requires. Yes, this can be done by replacing the light bulbs with new compact fluorescent lights which as in my situation reduces the energy demand to 1/6th of the previous amount, but this is still a lot more than the 0 watts they draw when I have them off. Your home could be powered by coal, oil, nuclear, or even clean energy like wind or solar, but if the systems it’s powering are inefficient, than you’re just throwing money away. If your home was small and only had my 3 original lights, you’d require 300 watts of power. With compact fluorescent lights however, your requirement would be 1/6th of this amount. If you were building a home that was intended to be self-sufficient (off-grid), a reduction to 1/6th the original power requirement would be a radical change in projected costs. For an additional investment of just $5 per light bulb over the cost of a standard incandescent light, you would have saved thousands of dollars on a solar array or wind turbine. But if you shut off the lights when they weren’t needed, you would save even more. It seems pretty logical so far, but what if you look at it in reverse? Let’s say you’re doing the same project, but decide not to spend the extra few dollars on the efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. If your initial calculations factored in the increased efficiency, then by not including them, your power requirements would now be 6 times more than you’d originally anticipated, or back to the 300 watts. If you’d budgeted for 50 watts, this would put a serious dent in your budget. One simple change close to the source (the type of light bulb) that cost $15, suddenly increased the power costs sixfold. It’s not a literal conversion from ounces to pounds, but this lack of prevention will now drastically increase the power costs.
A darkened room isn’t as exciting, as a fancy light bulb and nifty blue panels on the roof, but it’s a heck of a lot more efficient. And a lot cheaper.

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About

Steve holds a degree in Environmental Engineering Technology from Humber College in Toronto, is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor. He currently lives in Victoria BC and works as a green building consultant specializing in residential projects.

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