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Energy Fixer

Looking back at a year of energy improvements

Now that the colder weather of December is here, Sarah is really enjoying the improved efficiency and comfort of her home. Since we launched this Energy Fixer series in January, she took a number of steps to help cut energy waste, including:

How much is Sarah saving?

The house is much more comfortable, and Sarah knows she’s saving energy and money — but not exactly how much.

One hint is the average energy costs at the all-electric house for the past several years were about $250 to $350 a month during winter and $75 during summer without air conditioning. In comparison, Sarah’s highest winter bill after installing her heat pump has been only $170 — and that was before she had her house insulated and air sealed. And even though she now had air conditioning running all summer, thanks to the ductless heat pump, her average summer bill was only $87.

“I know that’s not a completely accurate reflection of savings since the previous residents’ situation was different. It may have been a larger family or they may have been home during the day,” Sarah says. “But it still makes me very happy to see the big drop!”

Sarah now uses Energy Tracker to closely monitor her energy usage. She also signed up to receive PGE text alerts to see how much electricity she’s using each week, and she has quickly make adjustments, such as turning off lights, if she sees an increase. For example, in this picture, she got an alert, thought her bill would be too high, made adjustments, and saw the difference she made in the following week’s alert.

Six top takeaways

Want to start improving your own “energy fixer” house? Here are Sarah’s key lessons from this year of energy improvements in her own words:

1. Evaluation is key. You think you know where you’re wasting energy, but you might be surprised. For example, it really didn’t sink in that water heating was a big expense — even though I work at PGE and have heard it before!

The free, online evaluation was a great way to dip into this whole energy-efficiency project, and to direct and motivate my “behavioral” and low-cost stuff like washing laundry in cold and switching to LEDs.

2. The cost of a detailed, home energy audit is money well spent. Before you invest in any efficiency upgrades, a home energy audit gives you hard data to help you prioritize. I would not have committed to insulation/air sealing up front, for example, if I hadn’t had the building analyst explain in detail why it mattered and give me a customized plan. I’m really excited to see what kind of difference it makes in my energy use this winter!

3. Heat pump = love! My new ductless heat pump does a great job of heating the house, and I like the zonal aspect of ductless (we keep the kitchen/office area cooler than the living area). The heat is really even — not hot, cold, hot — and you don’t have a bunch of air blowing on you like with a forced-air system.

4. Take time to ask questions, and learn the optimal way to run any new technology. It’s not always intuitive. At first, I was turning the heat way down when I left the house and back up when I got home, but I later learned that’s less efficient; heat pumps are designed to run most efficiently when you stay within a band of a few degrees. If you turn it way down at night or when you’re at work, it can trigger the less-efficient back-up heat to come on. Plus, it takes longer to heat up. And looking at my Energy Tracker data, it seems true. My house, so far, is VERY toasty at my standard setting of 65-66 degrees. (And I normally like a 68-69 degree setting.)

5. Get your house air sealed and insulated — but keep ventilation in mind, too! Sealing and insulating your home is one of the most important things to do to save energy, but it’s possible to seal a house too well. You need adequate fresh air for ventilation to maintain healthy, comfortable indoor air, and a controlled ventilation system is preferable to air leakage. Be sure to ask about this if you have your home weatherized.

6. Take advantage of special offers and incentives! The Energy Trust of Oregon cash incentives, plus the special PGE heat pump offer, really helped make the insulation, air sealing and ductless heat pump more affordable.

We’ll continue check in with Sarah occasionally during 2016 as she takes further steps to move her home from an energy fixer to an energy performer.