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Why energy efficiency is important for solar homes

Why energy efficiency is important for solar homes

July 8, 2021 Minnesota Solar Uncategorized 0
Electrical outlet

Anybody who pays power bills every month doesn’t have to ask why energy efficiency is important. Wasting energy is also a waste of money.

Prospective solar users may also want to consider energy efficiency.

Though solar is becoming increasingly popular, people may get turned off by the panels’ initial price tag. After all, average-sized systems can cost as much as a decent used car.

That’s not to say solar isn’t a good investment. After factoring in financial incentives and the value of the power produced by the panels, solar systems can pay for themselves well before they are decommissioned. But homeowners can also reduce the amount electricity they use in the first place.

By reducing power consumption, prospective solar users can shrink the size of their system. Fewer panels, wires and other components generally means a more affordable setup.

And if you’re considering installing a solar power system, chances are you’re concerned about the environment. Since electricity generation is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, reducing our energy emissions can have a big effect on climate change. Not only is energy efficiency a win for your wallet, it’s a planet-friendly practice.  

So now that you know why energy efficiency is important for solar users, let’s dive into some ways to lower your power bills.

Welcome changes

“Energy efficiency” is something of a buzzword these days. But it has resulted in several noticeable changes in our daily life. Instead of incandescent light bulbs, we use LED ones. Newer appliances use less energy than older ones.

Those are welcome changes. The less energy we use, the more money we save and fewer climate-altering emissions enter the atmosphere.

But it’s likely not your light bulbs that are taking the biggest chunk out of your wallet every month.

Heating and air conditioning is responsible for almost a third of the electricity used in the average American home. Water heating accounts for another 12 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So to achieve energy efficiency at home, people need to think about how they’re heating and cooling their houses and find improvements. That can include better insulation and fixing leaky windows and doors. Being smarter about water usage can also make a big difference.

Heating and cooling

Heating and cooling a home takes a lot of energy. And if you’re using electricity to keep you and your family comfortable when the temperature drops and spikes, you’ve probably noticed big bills during the summer and winter months.

Let’s tackle the summer first. Duluth only had two days above 90 degrees in 2020, according to the National Weather Service. And annual heating and cooling degree days, which are measurements of how much the temperature deviates from 65 degrees, tells us the cold is more of a concern here than the heat. (Duh.)

But hot days are becoming more common with a changing climate.

Powering air conditioning units can cost between $20.75 and $32.76 per month on average, depending on whether it’s a room unit or central AC. That’s well above refrigerator and freezer costs, according to Minnesota Power.

During Minnesota winters, natural gas is more often used to heat homes. In 2015, about two-thirds of occupied residential units used natural gas for space heating, while only 17.1% used electricity, according to this legislative report. So solar panels wouldn’t be powering heating sources in most Minnesota homes.

But even a small space heater can use a lot of electricity. If we take a common 1,500-watt space heater and run it for two hours each night, it would cost about $12 a month to power. (That’s assuming electricity costs 13 cents per kWh, the average for residents in Minnesota, according to federal data.)

But homeowners can use less power and save money by taking a few steps.

Let’s talk insulation first.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Insulation

Homeowners can trim 15 percent off their heating and cooling bills by “air sealing their homes and adding insulation in attics, floors over crawl spaces, and accessible basement rim joists,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Insulation is rated by its “R-value,” or its ability to resist heat. Not surprisingly, northern Minnesota requires some of the highest R-values in the country, according to this Energy Star map.

Energy Star recommends checking the insulation level in your home if you encounter problems like high heating and cooling bills and uneven temperature throughout the house. They have a handy guide on checking it yourself here, but you might want to consider hiring a professional.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce recommends starting in the attic to prevent heat loss. Homeowners can calculate the current R-value of their attic insulation by measuring the insulation and multiplying 2.5 to 4 for every inch. For reference, the department says new buildings must have at least insulation of R49 in the attic. That would mean the insulation needs to be about 12 to 20 inches thick.

Homeowners can choose between several types of insulation. Blanket insulation is the most common, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s relatively inexpensive and homeowners can install it themselves.

Foam boards have high thermal resistance, according to the DOE. Loose fill insulation can be used in retrofit projects and difficult-to-reach places.

A proper seal

Insulation isn’t the only way to keep your home at the proper temperature. You can seal cracks in windows, doors and other spots to prevent air from entering or leaving.

The Department of Energy recommends caulking for cracks between stationary components. Weatherstripping is better suited for doors and windows.

There are other, less obvious places that can be sealed, according to the DOE. Places where plumbing and wiring comes through walls are one option, as are areas around fireplace chimneys. Energy Star also says sealing up a drafty attic can result in huge savings.

You probably have an idea of where the problem spots are located in your home. But a home energy professionals can help identify air leaks, as well.

Cooling a home

As mentioned earlier, air conditioning carries a heavy price tag. Beyond properly insulating and sealing your house, there are steps you can take reduce the need for a power-sucking AC unit.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has several helpful suggestions. Awnings on south-facing windows can block sunlight, as can trees in your yard. They also suggest reducing heat in your home by ventilating while cooking or bathing and using heat-producing appliances like clothes dryers and dishwashers when it cools down at night.

The type of windows in your house can also affect how much heat gets in or out of your home. So upgrading your home’s window might be an option.

Window air conditioning unit

Windows

Adding more panes to a window lowers its “U-value,” which Kansas State University says is the “measure of a material’s ability to transfer heat.” Translation: A lower U-value means the window is a better insulator.

KSU says windows can be coated with heat-reflective material to reduce heat gain or loss. Some windows are filled with gas that lowers the heat transfer, according to KSU.

Homeowners considering new windows should look into Energy Star certified products. Energy Star is the federal government’s energy efficiency “seal of approval,” so to speak. Newer appliances such as fridges and AC units often have the Energy Star blessing.

Replacing single-pane windows with Energy Star products can save a typical home in the northern swath of the country $366 in annual heating and cooling costs.  

Water heater

Think about how often people in your home use hot water. Every time somebody takes a shower, runs the dishwasher or washes their hands, the more energy is used to heat water.

Homes may use gas or electric water heaters. While all homeowners should be concerned with water heater efficiency, electric models can be some of the biggest users of electricity in a home. That’s a big deal for prospective solar users.

Even an energy efficient water heater can account for $32 of your electrical bill every month, according to Minnesota Power.

The Department of Energy has several simple solutions to lower hot water usage. That includes avoiding baths, taking shorter showers and lowering the temperature on the water heater to 120 degrees. You can also use cold water for laundry and install low-flow fixtures.

On the latter point, the DOE says federal regulations require low flow rates on new showerheads and faucets. If you have old fixtures in your house, this may be one place to start achieving energy efficiency at home.

Appliances

Your home is filled with appliances. And many of them run on electricity. But what if they’re old or not properly maintained? They probably use more electricity.

Newer appliances are generally more energy efficient than old ones. Part of that has to do with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Passed in 1975 amid a national energy crisis, the law allows the Department of Energy to implement “minimum efficiency standards for a wide range of appliances and equipment used in residential and commercial buildings.”

“The legal limit on energy/water consumption for designated products — applied equally to all manufacturers of those products — makes energy efficiency a priority instead of an afterthought or a competitive disadvantage,” according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Energy Star certified products, meanwhile, go beyond minimum federal requirements. A certified dishwasher, for example, includes improved rack designs, efficient jets and soil sensors. Consumers can find those appliances here. 

Energy efficiency efforts have made a dent since the 70s. The Alliance to Save Energy reported in 2013 that U.S. economic output tripled since 1970 but energy demand grew by only 50%. The EIA says energy consumption per household has steadily declined across the U.S., including the Midwest, since 1980.

What does that mean for your home? If you have old appliances in your house, buying a new one may be a smart investment. Replacing your old fridge with an Energy Star certified one can save you more than $200 over 12 years.

The big picture

In this blog, we discussed ways to improve your home’s energy efficiency. We tackled major renovations that might require professional help and small changes to your daily habits.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to ways to improve your home’s energy efficiency, but hopefully it gives you some ideas.

Whether you’re thinking about going solar or not, it’s a good idea to think about energy usage as a matter of fiscal and environmental responsibility.

But prospective solar users have even more to gain by making their homes more energy efficient. Not only are you making your solar power system more affordable, but you’re ensuring you’re not wasting that renewable energy through leaky windows and old appliances.


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