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Power busters

You can do something about those high utility bills. Help put the brakes on our country's out-of-control consumption of energy.

By JAMES DULLEY, Special to the Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2001

You can do something about those high utility bills. Help put the brakes on our country's out-of-control consumption of energy.

If just the thought of opening those budget-busting gas and electric bills each month this summer makes you wince, you are not alone.

Even worse than high utility bills, there are real possibilities of rolling blackouts throughout the country on hot weekday afternoons.

This unfortunate energy situation is not an evil plot by the large utility companies. We homeowners use huge amounts of electricity, and we are pushing the production capacity of the utility companies to its limits. To produce more power, the utility companies have to resort to using high-cost energy sources. This pushes up our utility bills and reduces their profits -- a lose/lose situation.

Since it takes years to build new, efficient power plants, the short-term solution is for each of us to consume less energy. Saving a kilowatt-hour of electricity by conservation is exactly the same as burning more coal or gas to produce one more hour, and it is definitely better for our environment.

Don't just run out and replace your air conditioner or install new super-efficient quad-pane windows, or you really will bust your budget. To determine the most cost-effective improvements to make, you should first do a simple 30-minute home energy checkup. You will be surprised how many things you can do in a single weekend to reduce the energy usage of your home. In the suggestions that follow, typical estimated percentage of utility bill savings appears in parentheses.

Let's start outdoors with the greatest summertime energy consumer: the central air conditioner. If you need a machete to hack down weeds and shrubs to even get close to it, you have already made your first energy improvement (1 percent). Central air conditioners, and window units for that matter, need a lot of air flow through them to operate efficiently. Clearance of 3 feet all around the unit is a good target.

Now that you can get to the air conditioner, take a look through the grille. You should see condenser coils, not just leaves and debris. If it is covered by leaves or small sticks or if the fins are bent over (ask your kids about how the fins got that way), clean them off for unimpeded air flow.

Switch off the electric power to the air conditioner at the breaker panel. Remove the sheet-metal screws on the air-conditioner cover and lift it off. Pick out as much debris as possible and spray off the coils with your garden hose. Straighten bent fins with the tip of a steak knife. Replace the cover. It is important to tighten all the cover screws so that the fan draws air through the coils and not through a leaky cover (0.5 percent).

While you are outside, check for gaps where faucets and electric conduits penetrate the outside wall (1 percent). Fill any gaps with caulk to block air leakage into and out of your home. If the gaps are big, use foam caulk from a can. (Be careful: This stuff is really sticky, and it continues to expand for several minutes after you inject it, so don't use too much at first.)

Take a look up at your roof. You should see roof vents and inlet air vents under the soffits (roof overhang) to keep the attic cool (2 percent). A gable vent at each end of the roof is generally not adequate. Attic floor insulation is not as effective at blocking the summer heat gain as it is at saving heat in the winter, so attic ventilation is critical. You can buy screened soffit vents and roll-on roof ridge vents at any home center. They are not difficult to install.

Go back indoors and close all the windows and doors. Turn on the kitchen and bathroom vent fans to create a slight negative pressure in your house. If your gas water heater happens to come on, open a window until it shuts off to avoid backdrafting. Move a lighted stick of incense or a candle (watch this open flame very carefully!) around all the windows and doors. Watch the stream of smoke or the flame for signs of air leaks. Replace worn weatherstripping and caulk leaky gaps and cracks around the frame (3 percent).

Speaking of the water heater, check it too. Touch the water heater tank near the top with the back of your hand. If it feels warm, add some insulation to the tank (2 percent). You can buy inexpensive ready-made insulated tank jackets, or just wrap the tank with old fiberglass insulation. Don't block the air inlet or the draft diverter on a gas model. I wrapped mine with wall insulation and covered it with reflective foil.

If you have not done so in several months (most likely you haven't done it in years or ever), drain a few gallons of water from the base of the tank to flush out sediment (0.5 percent). Check the hot water temperature at the kitchen faucet. A temperature of 120 degrees is more than adequate (1 percent). If it is hotter, turn down the water-heater thermostat. Most new dishwashers have built-in heating elements, so they clean fine with 120-degree incoming hot water.

After heating, cooling and water heating, the kitchen is the next greatest energy consumer. The key areas to check are the conditions of seals around the refrigerator and oven doors. Visually inspect them first and then close them on a piece of paper and try to pull it out. You should feel some resistance. If not, purchase a replacement gasket. Vacuum all dust off the condenser coils under or behind the refrigerator. Also pull the refrigerator out a couple of inches from the wall to allow for better air flow (total 0.5 percent).

Proceed to the bathrooms and check out the faucets, shower heads and vent fans. Fix any leaking faucets. All slow leaks will feel cold, even if the water is coming from the hot water line. Turn on the shower head and catch the water in a bucket for exactly one minute. Measure the volume of water to determine the gallon-per-minute of flow. A rate of two gallons per minute or less is acceptable. Make sure that the vent fan is not full of dust and hair that impede the air flow. It is important to remove moist air quickly.

Indoor lighting accounts for about 10 percent of electricity consumption in a typical home. Walk through each room and study the location of the lights as they relate to the various activities done in each room. Generally you will find much higher wattage bulbs than needed. Installing low-cost dimmer switches or three-way bulbs saves a lot (1 percent). Of course, the most saving comes from replacing the incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and they last 10 times longer (2 percent).

The key lifestyle change to make is setting your air-conditioner thermostat up just two degrees (2 to 4 percent). Your family will quickly get used to it. Ceiling fans will make you feel more comfortable by evaporating moisture from your skin, even though they do not actually lower the room temperature.

Where we spend our energy dollars

A typical home in Florida that heats with electricity and has a swimming pool uses energy this way:

Cooling: 33 percent.

Refrigeration: 15 percent.

Hot water: 14 percent.

Space heating: 10 percent.

Pool pump: 10 percent.

Lighting: 5 percent.

Cooking: 4 percent.

Clothes drying: 3 percent.

Other: 6 percent.

Source: Florida Solar Energy Center

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