Personal Finance 

Ten Ways to Greenify Your Home Right Now

Green Historic HomeWhen you look at the U.S. Green Building Council’s checklist for what makes a Green Home, you see a lot of things you can’t change after you’ve bought a home. Location? Can’t really move your house very easily, now can you? Size? Sorry, that’s pretty much set for us. And building design? It is what it is and unless you’re willing to do some major renovations, your design is set too.

However, there are plenty of things you can do right now to make your home a little nicer on the environment and cheaper on your wallet. They don’t require huge renovations or wholesale changes to your home, just little tweaks here or there that you probably won’t even notice… until you open your energy bill.

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 Frugal Living 

New Lighting Facts Label

Compact Fluorescent Light BulbI’m a big proponent of compact flourescent light bulbs because they use less energy, last longer, and are better for the environment when disposed of properly. They aren’t without downsides though but I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

While I’m not going to run out to buy those 17-year LED lightbulbs GE is releasing later this year, I am glad to see that there is more news about lighting technology. Prime on that list of “good things” is the new FTC labeling requirement. Lighting manufacturers will soon be required to place a “Lighting Facts” label on the back of bulb packages, similar to Nutrition Facts on food. Additional, and almost more importantly, bulbs containing mercury will be labeled as such on that label.

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Maryland’s Cash for Appliances

Energy StarHappy Earth Day!

Today marks the first day Maryland residents can take advantage of the Cash for Appliances program, known as the Maryland Energy Efficient Appliance Rebate Program.

There are three main pieces to the program – $100 for Energy Star Clothes Washers with a Modified Energy Factor of at least 2.0 and a Water Factor no greater than 6.0; a $50 rebate for Energy Star Refrigerators, at least 25% more efficient than the federal standard; and $300 for an Electric Heat Pump Water heater. You can work with your utility company to get the rebates.

Before you run out and buy an appliance, this rebate should not replace your breakeven analysis.
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 The Home 

2009 Federal Energy Tax Credits

Energy Star LogoWhile many parts of of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (or what some call the $700 billion bailout) probably upset you, one aspect that did make me smile was the reintroduction of energy tax credits. (You thought I was going to point out the extension to the provision that allowed racetracks to depreciate their tracks over 7 years rather than 15, huh?) The federal energy tax credit for energy efficiency was a benefit I took advantage of two years ago whenever we replaced our aging windows and sliding doors. While it’s great that the credits have returned, one unfortunate aspect is that the $500 credit limit will apply to 2006, 2007, and 2009. We won’t be able to take advantage again.

With home improvements, you have to place the home improvement in service after January 1st, 2009 and on or before December 31st, 2009. If you do anything between now and December 31st, 2008, you’ll be out of luck. I would review the Energy Star chart for the specifics of each improvement, how much you can get from the credit, before making any decisions but I’ll highlight the major ones.

The biggest bang for your buck is in the form of replacement windows and, to a certain extent, doors. For windows and skylights, you can get a credit for 10% of the cost, up to $200, for Energy Star qualified or IECC meeting windows. Labor is not included. For exterior doors, if they meet IECC standards, you can get a credit for 10% of the cost, up to $500.

Insulation is another good way to reduce energy costs without costing you a lot of money and they come with a 10% credit, up to $500. The only requirement is that they must be expected to last 5 years or have a 2 year warranty. One great place to check your insulation levels is in the attic, it’s important to have at least 12 inches of insulation. If you can see your joists, you need more insulation.

Finally, there are a few home improvements that are afforded energy credits. Compliant HVAC systems and water heaters can get a $300 credit. If you happen to live in an area with plenty of sun, solar systems can get 30% off, up to $2000 (there is no $2000 cap if is it’s a Photovoltaic system!), and are not subject to the $500 credit cap. While the credits probably aren’t enough to get you to install it, they are nice if you’ve already made the decision.

 Frugal Living 

547 Ways to be Fuel Smart by Roger Albright

547 Ways to be Fuel Smart by Roger Albright547 Ways to be Fuel Smart by Roger Albright was last published in 2000 (with editions in 1990 and 1978, hmmm curious dates they are!) and does in fact contain 547 ways you can get the same out of life but consume less fuel. The book is old, so you won’t find it in bookstores (I found it walking the stacks at my local library), but it contains information that is just as appropriate today as it was in 1978 and 1990.

While you won’t be able to use all of the ideas in this book, some of them will be a bit out of date, you are sure to find some that you can apply. There are five hundred forty seven ways in here pal, you should be able to find one. 🙂

Here’s one idea I won’t be using: Albright talks about four huge windows in his home that he loved but were huge energy sinks. They were afflicted with the same condition many older windows are: they were very drafty. He realized that he could live without opening them, because there were other options, so he nailed them shut, caulked the seams, and sealed off the draft. He could still admire and enjoy the views through the windows but he wouldn’t have to pay the energy costs for the draftiness. I won’t be nailing down any windows but it’s a good idea for those who live in older homes.

Which chapter did I like the most? Chapter 7: Rake in Savings From Your Garden! While many of the suggestions in the book are for people with in-ground gardens (versus a patio/planter garden like we do), there are still great ideas in here that we can take away. One section explains the best way to store your harvest to make it last. For example, there are two ways to store and dry herbs. The first is to dry it in hanging bunches in a fine mesh onion bag in your refrigerator for a week. The second is to use a microwave to dry them (wrap in paper towels and zap for short intervals). Both are better than leaving them out in the air because that’s how they lose most of their flavor. I haven’t tried any of these ideas but they seem plausible.

If you’re interested in finding a few new ideas, check to see if your local library has it.


Truth Behind The Energy Star Label

Energy Star LogoEnergy Star is a sham. That’s right, I said it, the Energy Star label as it stands today doesn’t really mean much for a lot of the products its put on.

Let me give you a ridiculous example. On televisions, the Energy Star label is applied on products based on the energy they consume when the unit is OFF. What!? Are you kidding me!? I’d like to meet the individual or individuals in charge of that decision because it defies all logic. I argue some ridiculous positions in my Devil’s Advocate series and even I have difficulty justifying applying the Energy Star label based on a products phantom electricity usage.

But, moving past that, Leigh Gallagher, senior editor of Smart Money magazine, and their staff went behind the scenes to dig deeper behind the meaning of the label. It’s meaningless for some products, like televisions, but it’s reliable for others. That inconsistency bothers me because inconsistency in a brand, and Energy Star is very much a brand in and of itself, leads one to question it and we live in times when we shouldn’t give any reason to question environmental friendly markers.

According to Smart Money, these are the appliances you can’t trust the Energy Star label on:

  • TVs
  • Air Conditioners
  • Computers (Desktop & Laptop)
  • VCRs

On those items, check the yellow and black EnergyGuide label required by the FTC. Those will tell you how much energy it consumes and where it is relative to its peer appliances.

These are the products that you can trust the Energy Star label for:

  • Dishwashers
  • Refrigerators
  • Freezers
  • Washing Machines

Now, there are items that carry the label but aren’t actually regulated (which mean the label is meaningless!):

  • Dryers
  • Ovens
  • Home water heaters
  • Toaster or toaster ovens
  • MP3 players

See what I mean about the confusion? Fortunately they’re making moves to make the Energy Star more consistent and reliable, such as changes in the way televisions are tested, so perhaps we’ll get more consistency and reliability in the future.

The Truth Behind Energy Star [CBS]

 Frugal Living 

Housepooling: When Energy Quintuples

JD asked his readers today for energy conservation tips after a reader in Juneau wrote in about electricity prices in his state increasing from 11 cents a kilowatt hour to 50 cents a kilowatt hour. Over at the BFP household, we do quite a bit of energy conservation, many of which were documented in a guest by Fred from One Project Closer titled 10 Homeowner Secrets That Save You Money Now!. However, if energy prices were to increase five-fold, I think we need to think out of the box and turn to more drastic measures. That measure… is housepooling.

Simply take the idea of carpooling, where you share a commute to and from work, and extend it to living in the home. Once a week, invite a few friends over for dinner, drinks, board games, and then a slumber party. It allows multiple households to live under one roof, one energy bill for one night. Since the idea would be for everyone to housepool, your friends would reciprocate and you’d get several nights “energy-cost free.” It would cost a little more than usual to cook and entertain, but I suspect the increase would be minimal and you might even find that the heating bill going down with more people milling about your home.

The reader estimated that their new energy bill would be around $750, which is about $25 a day for heating alone. Put in a few housepooling days and you can cut maybe a hundred bucks or two off the cost of your bill, plus you get some time with your friends and have a good old fashioned slumber party!

What do you all think? Feasible when energy prices are 50 cents a kilowatt? Am I off my rocker?

 Personal Finance, The Home 

How to Save Electricity (And Your Wallet)

Whether you’re Earth-conscious/friendly or just looking to save a few bucks, energy conservation makes good financial sense regardless of your intentions. There are several sites online that give you a rough estimate of how much money you’ll save on your bill if you take a few simple steps to conserve wattage.

First things first, large appliances and large fixtures eat up the most electricity. Basically these are you’re heavy hitters: Air Conditioning, Washer/Dryer, Lights, and Refrigerator/Freezer.

Air Conditioning: Consider using a fan or installing ceiling fans instead of using the Air Conditioning. Or consider setting the air conditioning at a higher level and using fans in conjunction. You can expect savings of over 6000 kWh/year simply by using a ceiling fan instead of running the AC. Look at your electric bill, see how much that would save you, and then decide if you want to install some fans. It is estimated that, for cooling, every degree below 78 increases your usage by about 6-8%.

Consider getting a timer, so you don’t cool when you’re not around (it’s a waste!). Timers are cheap and many have reaped the dividends many times over. Also consider replacing your old system with a new one. It is believed that a system made before 1988 probably uses more than twice the energy as one made today.

Another note about fans, they don’t cool the air, they simply move it. As you stay stationary, your body warms the air around you and so you’ll feel warmer. The fan will simply push that air away so you can feel cooler air around you. What that also means is leaving a fan on in a room you’re not in is a waste.

Washer/Dryer: This is where you can save a few dollars without even noticing (unlike the niceties of AC, how you wash/dry clothes probably doesn’t matter as much). If you just air-dry your clothes on a rack instead of using the dryer, you can expect to save about 1500 kWh/yr. You might notice that change because fabric softener sure is nice… but use cold water instead of hot water to wash and you can save 1200 kWh/yr. If you use warm instead of hot, you can still save 600 kWh/yr. And these aren’t difficult changes to enact, you won’t even notice you’re using cold water.

Lights: Here is where there’s a lot of debate between using regular incandescent bulbs and compact fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescents use significantly less electricity but take longer to warm up and produce a nice “clean” light.

Refrigerator/Freezer: This is simply a matter of figuring out how much energy your current refrigerator is using and how much the newer models are using. A new fridge will probably run you around $500 and will last you maybe twenty years or so. A typical fridge from ten or fifteen years ago probably eats up about 900 kWh/yr so do your math and see if it makes sense. As for standalone freezers, if you can save money by buying in bulk from Costco then you may justify using that freezer. Most are energy guzzlers and if you don’t need it, get rid of it.

Next we will look at the smaller appliances and some appliances you didn’t think used that much power. Almost everything that draws juice will have a label on it that will tell you how many watts it runs on. If it only has amp(ere)s, then multiply by 120 because our outlets are 120 volts (amps * volts = watts) to find out the watts it’ll use.

Key Points:
1. That number is the maximum it’ll draw, the average draw may be lower. Plus it won’t tell you how much it’s really drawing but it will tell you the max it will draw in a month. It’s not an exact science.
2. Advertisements are usually for output, like your speakers are a certain wattage, etc. The draw is probably higher.
3. When off, some things still draw power, even if nothing is being displayed. You obviously expect anything with a display to draw power but even that receiver, when off, still draws power because there is a transformer inside. has a great list of how much each appliance will draw. It’s obviously just a sample because it’ll vary from brand to brand and from model to model. It’ll give you a good starting point.

There are several ways to check how much things are really using, the easiest is to use something like the P3 International Kill-a-Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. You can use it to see how much energy appliances are using and, if you don’t need it, unplug it. It’s a nifty little tool at a reasonable price. Another great way is to just go outside and look at your meter. The numbers will go up and the dials will turn, it’s a great way to see how much your home uses as a baseline.

I hope these little tips, most of them won’t impact your quality of life or require significant costs, are helpful in getting your energy costs in check. If nothing else, hopefully they’ve given you a few ideas you can build upon for even more savings.

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