Reducing Our Electrical Usage

This past week I called to get our power hooked up, and learned that the previous owners of our house paid an average of $165/month for electricity over the past year. While this sounds like a lot, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds… It’s a 3, 000 square foot house located in the southeast, and entirely electric (heat, air, hot water, clothes dryer, etc.). Still, now that I have a firm number in mind, I have a goal — i.e., to beat $165/month by as much as we can over the next year (without inconveniencing ourselves too badly).

The biggest problem so far seems to be the bonus room, which we’ll be using as the kids’ playroom. As it turns out, you have to keep the thermostat set pretty low in order to maintain a comfortable temperature up there. But a bit of investigation revealed a few problems right off the bat.

First of all, the attic access door didn’t close very tight, and was completely uninsulated. Second, the garage (which is directly below) has a couple of windows that are totally exposed to morning sun, and the garage door has a row of windows and no insulation. Third, all of the vents in the house were wide open.

My first move was to begin closing some of the vents on the lower level to drive more cool air upstairs. My second move was to replace the doorknob on the attic access door to make it close more securely, weatherstrip it, and then cover the backside with insulation. My third move was to hang blinds over the garage windows to help keep the garage temperature down. Those simple steps, combined with asking the kids to keep the bonus room door closed to stop the cool air from tumbling down the steps, have allowed us to raise the thermostat by four degress while still maintaining a comfortable temperature in the bonus room.

Next I have to figure out a good way of insulating the garage door. As was the case in our previous house, it’s a crappy metal door with no insulation. While I’ve insulated a garage door previously with great success, I’ve never had to deal with a door that has windows. We don’t want the house to look trashy, so simply insulating over the windows won’t work. While we could swap those panels out for a windowless equivalent, doing so isn’t cheap.

Instead of replacing the garage door (or at least parts of it), I was thinking of painting over the backside of those windows with a nice even coat of black or (preferably) white spray paint. The former would retain the look of a garage door with windows, but would allow me to insulate over the backside however I please, and would also block out visual access to the garage. The latter would make the door appear windowless (at least from a distance), and would similarly block out visual access to the garage. The main differences here would be: (1) appearance (windowed vs. windowless), (2) heat transfer (black windows would heat up more than white), and (3) durability (black might fade to a sickly grey over time). With these things in mind, I’d appreciate any suggestions as to how best to tackle this problem.

Regardless of how I go after the garage door problem, there are a number of other things that I’ll be doing to improve energy efficiency. Here’s a quick rundown off the top of my head:

(1) Replace incandescent lights with compact fluorescent (we did this at our old house with good results).

(2) Insulate the water heater (it’s in the crawl space — this will mainly help in the winter, if at all).

(3) Insulate the water pipes — they’re largely exposed in the crawl space (this is mainly a winter fix, and will have the added benefit of preventing frozen pipes).

(4) Check for missing/inadequate insulation in accessible locations (i.e., crawl space and attic). I already know that I have to insulate and weatherstrip the other attic access door.

(5) Replace the front door — it’s a double door that doesn’t seal particularly well. While we could redo the weather stripping, double doors are not at all energy efficient (they have >50% more in the way of edges, so there’s a lot more opportunity for air infiltration as compared to a single door). The problem here is that new doors are surprisingly expensive, especially if you need sidelights to fill in a double opening — more on this in a future post.

I’ll do my best to post updates as to how we’re progressing vs. the previous owners’ average monthly bill. Of course, another thing that we’re up against is family size — we have six and they had four. Given the impact that this has on hot water usage in particular (laundry, bathing, dishes, etc.) we’re fighting an uphill battle.

For more information on moving, check out my Roadmap for a Successful Relocation.

12 Responses to “Reducing Our Electrical Usage”

  1. Anonymous

    Great website! I noticed a huge difference in the temperature of my attached garage by insulating the garage door. I used liquid nails and aluminum faced insulation board. I also replaced a good majority of my lights with compact fluorescent bulbs. The trick to make a pleasing switch is to get the soft white version and use them in areas that already provide partial cover, like a lamp shade. Also, it helps to provide a hybrid of a single incandescent lamp in a room with a couple compact fluorescent lamps to created a pleasing effect.

  2. Anonymous

    I saved a noticeable amount on my electricity bills by drying laundry outside. Leave it out too long and it goes crunchy and needs ironing, but if you bring it in when it’s still very slightly damp and throw it in the dryer for just 5 minutes you’re golden!

  3. Anonymous

    depending on the location of your water heater and incoming pipes, you may be able to install a solar breadbox pre-heater for your hot water. This is much less expensive than a solar water heating system. You run pipes or pex to the black “breadbox”, loop the pipe inside the box a few times and then run to the water heater. This uses the sun to pre heat your water. In the summer, in a sunny location, you might be able to keep the water heater from needing to turn on. Just make sure you insulate the pipes, and have the pre-heater in a very sunny location (similar to how hot the inside of the car gets on a sunny, or not so sunny day. it really works). You can usually do this sype of system for $500 or less, depending on where your pipes, water heater, and such are. see for more info, or check out your library for an old book called “solarizing your present home” by Carter. Pub by Rodale press. Could be worth it to lower water heating costs.

  4. Anonymous

    I would consider covering the garage windows with cardboard, either painted black or white, or with pictures. You could also cover the cardboard with fabric, making a kind of curtained look to the windows.

    Cardboard is a decent insulator itself, blocks viewing the inside, and can be insulated over on the inside. It has the advantage of being easily removed for resale of your home. You can also easily remove and replace it if the paint weathers, or if you choose a different color scheme, etc.

  5. Anonymous

    We have the same problem with our garage door and the heat it get once the sun shines onto it from 1pm until evening. I bought some a window tinting kit (reflective) and tinted the windows. That helped a whole lot. Our next plan of action is to paint it with Radiant Barrier Pain from KoolCoat. To fix the insulation problem we’ll buy a couple of sheets of the ‘board’ type insulation and cut those to fit into the empty cavity on the back of the door. It’s a whole lot cheaper than springing for new insulated garage doors.

  6. Anonymous

    wow! Great ideas. Since our house is new I’ve been wondering what we have to do. I’m going to check out your posting regarding insulating your garage door. Then again, Grandpa prefers to keep it open all day — inlaws!!

  7. Anonymous

    You’re doing a lot of good things. Generally, if you stop air infiltration to the house you will accomplish a lot. Here are a few suggestions:

    Use caulk and spray foam to fill small gaps all around the house. Don’t be afraid to get in the attic and under the house to accomplish this. Here’s a guide I found from Habitat for Humanity. It’s for new construction, but much of this you can do on an existing home:

    Insulate UNDER the water heater as well the sides and top. A lot of people don’t do this.

    Make sure duct work is well sealed and insulated. It has never made sense to me why we have our air conditioning vents in a 130 degree attic.

    If you have recessed can lights, research how to insulate and seal them (if they aren’t). Some can lights can’t come into contact with insulation and many of them have holes in them. Uninsulated can light = hole in your ceiling. I sealed mine with duct tape (the stuff actually used on ducts, not regular duck tape).

  8. Anonymous

    Two comments:

    1. You should have known the costs before you purchased. Many listings contain these numbers — yours didn’t? (Not that you wouldn’t have purchased the place anyway, but they should have told you this up front.)

    2. 3k square feet? You’re the man!!!!!!!

  9. Anonymous

    I have few suggestions.

    1) Look into getting solar screens for the garage windows. They will block more of the sunlight getting into the garage, which will probably be the largest opportunity that you will have with the garage.

    2) Maybe you should look into a reflective coating for the windows in the garage door. It will give you the effect that you want to acheive with the white, while giving you the advantages of the black (opacity and/or retaining the look of a window). Then you can insulate the garage door.

    3) Check to see if your attic is properly ventilated. You might look into a solar powered attic fan to exhaust the heat.

    4) You may want to see if you have an air return on each floor. In the summer, you could block the upstairs air return, and leave your central air fan on all the time, and do the opposite in the winter. This will help to equalize the temperature in the house without having to always run the central air unit.

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