Home Energy Savings–It’s Not Witchcraft

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Caveat Emptor!  With Halloween just passed, I’m still reminded of some of the scary misinformation floating around out there.  And I’m not just talking about misleading advertising for space heaters.  There are some crazy ideas about how to determine what to do in your home to save energy, ignoring practical wisdom and experience.   Science, a good energy audit,  and quality installations get you there.

With energy-efficiency taking its right place as a cornerstone of good economic policy, the national security conversation, and environmental protection, the snake-oil and miracle cures are being hawked, including some that will hit the policy discussion at the federal, state, and local levels.  And a couple of good ideas in particular are being overinflated and overhyped as the solution to our home energy woes.

We love energy monitoring devices, from TED to Blue Line monitors to smart meters, watching how you use can help you figure out how to save.  But the devices themselves don’t save!  It’s changing behaviors (conservation) and increasing efficiency that save.  Don’t expect using a monitor alone to be the answer.

Similarly, there are a host of energy audits being touted, from a “home energy rating” (or “HERS” score) to online audits based on assumptions about what’s going on in the average home, with guesses from afar.  Many of these can give you a general idea of what to do.  But they can’t really diagnose what’s going on in your house specifically, and they certainly can’t generate a target plan or work scope for you home let alone actually do the work for you.

Would you go get surgery or start taking a bunch of medicine based on what the average person needs?  Or would you want a proper diagnosis of your health and any particular ailment you might have?  What you trust a recommendation for open heart surgery from someone who didn’t take your blood pressure or pull out a stethoscope or give you an EKG?  Would you schedule that surgery based on the recommendation of someone who used only a clipboard, and didn’t actually understand about the surgery itself?  Clearly not.

And you shouldn’t invest in home improvements without a good diagnosis, either.  I’ve talked about what a good home energy audit should look like several times before.  (See also see earlier posts, our website, or a video description.)  But it looks like we’ll have to repeat it as some of the wacky ideas can bounced around, even by some of the new hires at the Department of Energy (don’t you love it when policy ignores reality?) looking for the silver bullet, ignoring their own well-founded recommendations:

A professional auditor uses a variety of techniques and equipment to determine the energy efficiency of a structure. Thorough assessments often use equipment such as blower doors, which measure the extent of leaks in the building envelope, and infrared cameras, which reveal hard-to-detect areas of air infiltration and missing insulation.  (From the EERE website.)

 There are no silver bullets when it comes to making your home perform better.  But good science, proper assessments, and high quality installations can get you there.   It’s not that hard to do it right—but doing it wrong isn’t doing it right!

Thanks,
Mike

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2 Responses to “Home Energy Savings–It’s Not Witchcraft”

  1. Will Mallett Says:

    Great points all around. One thing I would take issue with is your point about home energy monitoring–while it’s definitely not a silver bullet, and definitely doesn’t replace the really important steps (fixing the building envelope, sealing leaky ducts, and all the other good building science stuff), studies have shown that the act of monitoring does lead to direct behavioral changes (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/10/technology/10energy.html). So you’re right that monitoring itself doesn’t reduce energy consumption, but it leads to reduced consumption, which is pretty close to the same thing I think.

    I think it’s also one of those small things that puts home energy consumption on the radar – if you have a monitor sitting on your table, you’re bound to think about the topic of energy consumption more than you would otherwise – and it’s these little things that we need to push if we want to see people really start to make the big changes that we need.

    Anyway, great post as per usual! Keep it up.

    • Mike Rogers Says:

      Thanks for keeping me honest, Will!

      I won’t dispute that energy monitoring can help–they can help point people in the right direction to, as I said, change behaviors and/or make structural changes. But it ain’t necessarily so!

      I’ll point you to a study by the Energy Trust of Oregon with the Blue Line device, summarized in the March/April 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine [if you don’t subscribe, you should!]. The authors conclusion from the study was that that savings from the use of the energy monitors was “not significantly different from zero”.

      I have no doubt that some people will use the information from the monitors to help make good choices and real reductions. But it seems most people won’t. I’m OK with that as long as we’re not expecting these devices to be a home energy panacea. And let’s keep exploring and evaluating. I have no doubt that good monitoring has a place in our energy future.

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