Montana State University

MSU Extension suggests ways to save home energy

October 22, 2008


Mike Vogel, MSU Extension housing and environmental health specialist. MSU photo.   High-Res Available

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With high fuel prices triggering a cascade of higher expenses, even people who think they have weatherized their homes may want to make sure they are being as energy efficient as they can, says a Montana State University Extension specialist.

"The most important energy saving step of all takes place inside our heads," said Mike Vogel, MSU Extension housing and environmental health specialist. "Once people make the decision to save energy, they find that reducing energy consumption is easy and the rewards are substantial. It's not rocket science. Just apply the basics."

Your home heating thermostat is a good place to start.

"One of the most cost-effective things you can do is to regulate your thermostat," He said people can save one percent of their heating bill for every degree they set the thermostat down at night.

Vogel said that 68 degrees Fahrenheit is an energy efficient setting for most homes with a forced air furnace. In addition, people may want to look for periods when the temperature can be decreased by about four degrees for several hours. That could be while they are at work, overnight or any other convenient time.

"If a person has a hot water system, however, it is best to simply set it at 68 degrees. If hot water systems are cut back, they can use more energy overall coming back up to temperature," he said.

Frequently, people turn the thermostat up when they come home, even though they may go out again quite soon.

"If you are only going to be home for a short period of time, putting on a sweater is not a bad option," Vogel said.

The hot water tank is another place where people may be able to save by checking the setting. Most heaters are set at 140 degrees F, but that setting may only be needed if the dishwasher does not have a booster heater. Turning the hot water tank's setting down to 120 degrees F or "medium" on a gas heater dial can cut water-heating costs by 6 to 10 percent. On electric water heaters, there are frequently upper and a lower thermostats, and both must be adjusted to reduce energy use. Do so after turning off the electricity at the circuit breaker.

On many water heaters, people can reduce costs by putting an insulated blanket over it, though the manufacturer may not recommend one for newer water heaters. Wrapping a water tank in a blanket of fiberglass insulation may reduce heat loss by 25 to 45 percent.

"That can translate into a savings of four to nine percent on your water-heating bill," Vogel said. "Just be sure not to block exhaust vents and air intakes on gas models, and thermostat access panels on electric heaters."

People can further reduce hot water energy consumption by using a low-flow shower head, which saves enough hot water to quickly pay for itself, he said.

Water heating accounts for 90 percent of the energy used by washing machines, so specifically choosing an appropriate water temperature can reduce energy costs.

"Hot water usually isn't necessary except for diapers or stained work clothes," Vogel said. He suggested doing laundry with cold water using cold-water detergents. Full loads are more energy efficient than partial loads.

If people feel chillier in the house on windy days, Vogel said that may be a sign that the breezes are blowing through wall outlets, windows, doors and fireplaces.

There are many ways of sealing gaps. Clear weatherstrip tape can seal where the glass meets the frame, tape can be used on the pulley holes of double-hung windows and rope caulk between the upper and lower windows. If exterior doors are leaking air, roll up towels to put along the floor or buy an inexpensive door sweep that attaches to the bottom of the door. If the door leaks around the entire frame, use foam weatherstripping with an adhesive backing between the door and frame.

Also check the fireplace damper. It should be closed when it's not in use and the opening covered. Either install fireplace doors, or, if the fireplace is not used, seal it with cardboard and tape. Caulk along the basement sill plate. Also seal little holes around water pipes and stuff insulation into big holes around plumbing fixtures. Heat leaks out of light switches and electrical outlets, too. Get an inexpensive packet of foam gaskets that fit behind the cover plates.

Once air leaks around windows are sealed, people can double their insulating value by installing storm windows. The added dead-air space is an excellent insulator. The air space should be at least one-half inch and not more than four inches.

Forced-air furnace filters need to be clean to be efficient. Some filters are disposable; some can be washed and reused. Clean or replace them monthly.

A refrigerator costs $5 to $8 per month to operate and uses three to five percent of your home's total energy. Keep the door closed as much as possible, regularly clean dust from the coils and de-ice the freezer if that isn't automatic.

For more information, contact the utility company, Human Resources Development Council, tribal weatherization office or the local MSU Extension office. MSU Extension has 15 publications pertaining to home energy which can be ordered through your local MSU Extension office or by going to the Extension Web at: http://www.msuextension.org/energy/homes.html. For low-income weatherization inquiries, contact HRDC (800) 332-2272.

Contact: Mike Vogel, MSU Extension Housing and Environmental Quality Specialist (406) 994-3451 or mvogel@montana.edu