So you’re ready to install a photovoltaic system; that’s great. Hopefully, you’ve found all the available state incentives, and a reliable installer for your system. It’s still an expensive investment with a high up-front cost that might make you balk. However, there are many steps you can take to reduce the size of the solar-power system you need by nearly 50 percent, at the same time reducing costs of your photovoltaic installation. These steps range from simple and inexpensive efforts to more expensive, but all are intended to reduce your energy use and make your home a better place.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to find out how to invest your energy-efficiency dollars is to pay a professional home energy auditor to review how efficiently your home uses energy. The audit, which may cost $600—though some cities, towns, or utilities may help subsidize the cost—will let you know if you have any leaks in your building, how to fix leakage problems, and whether you should consider buying updated appliances and more. Energy auditors use tools like infrared scanners to see where your home has energy leaks (see picture, above) If you choose to have a professional home energy auditor review your home, make sure he or she is certified by an accrediting organization like BPI or RESNET, and ask for references.
If you don’t want to pay a contractor $300 to $600 to perform a home-energy audit, you can do one yourself. The first thing you need to do is evaluate how much energy your home uses on an annual basis. Tally your electric bills for the past year or two and use those figures to determine how much power you use on a monthly basis. This will help you decide how large a photovoltaic system your home needs, as is, but will also help you understand whether or not your home is efficient, and it’s likely that it’s not.
The Simple Steps
The best way to reduce energy use is to start simple! And I mean simple. Make a habit of turning off the lights when you leave the room (unless of course someone else is in there). Put your phantom energy-eating electronics on a diet by turning off power strips when the TV, DVD, game system, or stereo isn’t on. Or get smart power strips, which turn all power off to certain devices when a master device is turned off. This sounds small, but it can have a big impact on your monthly bill.
The next step is lighting. If you haven’t done it yet, get rid of those old, wasteful incandescent light bulbs. Approximately 11 percent of a home’s energy bill is spent on lighting when using incandescent bulbs. Each compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) uses about 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb. It saves about $30 over its lifetime and it pays for itself in just half a year according to Energy Star. So replacing 20 incandescent light bulbs with CFLs could save you about $600. And since they last much longer than incandescent bulbs, you don’t have to replace them as often.
From here, things get a little more difficult. The next step is to find and seal all air leaks in your home. This may be a job for a contractor, unless you have a background in construction or remodeling.
The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office said that air-sealing your home can save you between five and 30 percent of your heating and cooling costs. This means finding and sealing drafts and air leaks around electric outlets, pipes, switch plates, window frames, outdoor walls, and the building foundation. It also means making sure you’ve sealed any areas between baseboards and floors, ceilings and attic hatches. A good way to find the leaks is to turn off any appliances that cause air to move in the house (exhaust fans, water heater, other fans, ect.) then use the smoke from a piece of lit incense, a candle’s flame or a damp hand to show you where any leaks are.
Taking these three, inexpensive initial steps can help you save up to 35 percent of your home’s energy costs, helping reduce the size of a photovoltaic system by a similar amount.
Not Enough? Replace Inefficient Appliances
At this point, you may want to consider replacing outdated appliances with newer Energy Star models. An Energy Star refrigerator can cut your energy bill by $200 or more annually, compared to one manufactured prior to 1992 (when Energy Star products entered the market). Other Energy Star-labeled electronics can also help reduce your energy usage significantly. Some Energy Star office products, like computers, fax machines, and printers, can use 90 percent less energy than similar equipment without the label according to Energy Star.
Don’t throw the old blender or toaster out for a new one if you don’t use it that much; make wise choices based on use and energy consumption. Rather, use a nifty device like the Kill-A-Watt EZ, which you plug in between an appliance and the outlet. The device tells you how much energy the device uses and how much it costs you to run it. If you compare the cost of operating the outdated device with what an Energy Star replacement would cost and find that it’s more expensive to keep using the old device—or if you just can’t stand having a split-pea soup-colored toaster—replace it. If not, don’t. The point is; by making wise investments here, you could reduce future energy use significantly.
Reduce Heating and Cooling Costs in Your Home
More than 50 percent of the average home’s energy use goes to heating and cooling, according to the EERE. The next steps in making your home more energy-efficient and to make the transition to photovoltaics or wind power easier are related to reducing heating and cooling costs.
To further reduce your energy use, make sure your home is properly insulated. Many U.S. homes were built when energy costs were low and insulation wasn’t a primary concern. But a well-insulated home will help keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. To find out if your home’s insulation stacks up, use the DOE’s ZIP Code Insulation Program. Simply enter your ZIP code and the program will tell you how high an R-value (a measurement of insulations’ properties) and where your home needs insulation to reduce heating and cooling needs.
This also is a good time to consider replacing outdated heating and cooling units. According to EERE, most older systems were oversized because homes lacked sufficient insulation, and while they could cool a home in a snap, they couldn’t dehumidify the air, leaving people in the home building with a clammy feeling. Look for an Energy Star unit and review its Energy Guide label to determine how much it can save you compared to your current system. EERE recommended that homeowners get at least three estimates from licensed HVAC professionals. Ask them whether the air-sealing and insulation projects you’ve undertaken will allow you to reduce the size of a heating and/or cooling unit. A smaller, more efficient unit will cost less than a larger unit and use less energy to regulate your home’s temperature.
Consider replacing outdated windows and doors. Hollow-core wood and steel doors offer very little in terms of insulation. Similarly, older single-paned and even some double-paned windows offer little in terms of insulation. Newer, argon- or other gas-filled double- and triple-paned windows are designed specifically to keep the heat and cold out, and the cool or warm air in.
Altogether, taking these steps can help you reduce your energy use by about 50 percent over what your home previously used or what comparable homes use. Thereby reducing the size of a photovoltaic installation by a similar amount.