If you haven’t examined your monthly utility bill lately, brace for a shock when the cost of air-conditioning comes due in the next few weeks. If the AC bill doesn’t raise your pulse, your heating tab next January might, assuming that global energy markets remain unsettled.
According to the most recent Consumer Price Index data, energy prices rose 41.6% in the last year, the largest 12-month increase since April 1980. Energy led all other categories: The price of fuel oils is up 70%; piped gas is up 38%; and electricity is up 14%.
What can the average consumer do to rein in the costs?
You can adjust the thermostat up in the summer (or dial it down in the winter). Draw the shades on hot days. Buy a box fan to keep the air moving. Put on a sweater in the winter. Convert to low-wattage LED lighting.
The US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy provides a step-by-step guide, including many suggestions for changes in behavior that require no commitment of money.
Or you can make some serious moves to improve your home’s energy efficiency. The cost of the upgrades could return dividends more quickly now that energy prices are higher.
Energy experts say consumers were just beginning to catch on to the idea of upgrading their homes when big heating bills started to land last winter.
“But then the weather turns nice, and we forget about energy efficiency until later,” said George Mullikin, the program manager for CleaResult, which conducts energy audits for Peco Energy customers. “So there’s definitely a seasonal aspect that drives it.”
Brett Baird, the office manager for Green Home Solutions, which does weatherization work in Pennsylvania and New Jersey under agreements with local utilities, said consumers are just beginning to wise up. “Generally speaking, people tend to be a little bit more concerned as the wintertime approaches because that’s where the lion’s share of their costs are.”
Before you launch an energy-efficiency project, get a professional energy assessment of your house. Most utilities will offer discounted assessments from a certified auditor.
A walk-through energy assessment will set forth a plan of attack: It will recommend areas that need insulation, such as in the attic or crawl space, weather stripping and sealing opportunities, and lighting, appliances or heating and ventilation systems that are in need of repair or replacement. Peco offers the assessment for $49.
For $99, Mullikin said Peco electric heating customers are also eligible for a more elaborate energy audit, which includes a blower door test, a diagnostic tool in which a technician will install a large fan in an exterior door and draw air out of the house, allowing the assessor to identify cracks and locations where air is entering the house.
Experts who do weatherization work on behalf of utilities and publicly funded programs, who need to justify the work as cost-effective, say the best way to reduce energy costs is to reduce the leakage of air from inside a home by adding insulation and by filling cracks — otherwise known as sealing a home’s thermal envelope.
“Air-sealing is by far the most cost-effective thing that you can do in virtually any home, even more important than insulation,” said Steve Luxton, the executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), the Philadelphia nonprofit that weatherizes homes for low-income clients in the region.
Insulation and weather stripping are super boring khaki-pants kind of stuff that don’t give you many bragging rights in the neighborhood, such as a new electric vehicle might. But there is a quiet satisfaction in knowing your crawl space is airtight with new foam insulation.
If your current air-conditioning or heating system is old and inefficient, it may also be worth the expense of replacing the system with newer high-efficiency models.
“If you have a furnace that was built in the ’70s or the ’80s, the efficiency is going to be in the 60% range,” said Baird. “We’re going to install a new one that’s about 96% to 98% efficiency. So there’s a massive savings just on that alone.”
Most utilities offer rebates to support the cost of new energy-efficient appliances or heating systems. The money is often paid by ratepayers, as part of government energy conservation mandates. Peco says its customers can realize as much as $435 in rebates for homes with central air and non-electric heating if they work through a participating contractor.
New Jersey utilities provide 0% financing and incentives up to $4,000 for whole-house energy-efficient upgrades done by certified contractors, according to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. “New Jersey’s incentives are definitely more attractive,” said Baird, whose company works on both sides of the Delaware River. “They have a really phenomenal financing option.”
Low-income customers have an additional menu of options available through organizations such as the Energy Coordinating Agency. The US Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program, which is for low-income families, saves the average household $372 a year in energy costs.
Pennsylvania this month authorized a onetime $125 million allocation of unspent coronavirus money from the American Rescue Plan for a new program called Whole-Home Repair, which provides grants as much as $50,000 to homeowners for projects including weatherization and energy efficiency. The funding allows homeowners to repair leaky roofs, which need to be fixed before contractors add new insulation to an attic. The main sponsor of the legislation was State Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Philadelphia).
ECA also recently received a onetime grant of $150,000 for emergency water heater replacements, which are not usually covered under low-income programs. ECA is administering the program through its Heater Hotline: 215-568-7190. The grant came from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services at the request of State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia).
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The US Department of Energy also recently announced more than $40 million in federal funding to help deliver home energy retrofits to low-income and underserved households.
Often the first thing that consumers ask about is a window replacement. Everybody has heard the radio ads, promising big energy savings with new windows.
“If I’m ever having a boring day and I want to pick a fight, all I have to say is this: Windows are the least cost-effective thing you can put in a home,” said Luxton. “And that’s guaranteed to get somebody from the window industry up in arms.”
Windows are an energy sieve, Luxton said. “Glass hasn’t changed, it might have a coating that ever so fractionally slows down the transmission of energy, but the energy still moves through it,” he said. “So putting in a new window does not really do anything at all, or very little, anyway, compared to things that do a lot.”
Most energy-efficiency programs funded by utilities or with public money won’t pay for window replacements, said Mullikin.
“If your windows operate well, if they’re not too leaky or can be sealed up with some inexpensive materials to make them less drafty, then that’s probably good enough. Replacing those windows can be very expensive, and there’s not a lot of payback.
“There’s all kinds of reasons to replace windows, but energy efficiency is probably not a good reason.”
The US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy provides a step-by-step guide on energy programs.
A good starting point is to reach out to your energy utility, which will provide an array of products and services for free or at a discount. Most of them will help arrange an energy assessment or audit, which will give a homeowner a cost-effective roadmap for reducing energy: