- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Homeowners can tweak their lighting fixtures, contain wandering bursts of air and use modern appliances to keep electrical bills at a reasonable rate and make home sweet home a lot sweeter.The prospect of whipping a home into efficient shape may seem daunting. David Meisegeier, project manager with Fairfax-based ICF Consulting, which helps businesses maintain energy-savvy practices, suggests asking a respected contractor to recommend an efficiency expert before bounding into action.

An energy audit, which he says some power companies offer free of charge, can begin the process. Or consumers can log on to such Web sites as Myhomekey.com, an online home-management site, and fill out an energy questionnaire to find ways to save up to 50 percent on energy bills.

"You want to locate where the primary areas for saving are," says Mr. Meisegeier, whose company helps clients optimize energy resources and meet environmental challenges. A home's energy usage depends on many factors, from its lighting systems to its age and size.

The average U.S. family's utility bill comes to about $1,400 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Whether it's the California energy crisis or the media's insistent drumbeat about conservation, consumers are more aware of the topic than ever before, Mr. Meisegeier says.

"They're starting to ask questions about the energy efficiency of their homes," he adds.

It might give homeowners a jolt of patriotism to know they are tapping less of the nation's natural resources than their neighbor — but home-energy conservation has its pampering effects, too.

"If you don't have an energy-efficient home, you don't have a comfortable home," Mr. Meisegeier says. For example, some might think installing a mammoth air-conditioning unit in a room might transform it into a cool summer hangout. Think again. Size does matter when it comes to air conditioning, just not in the way you would think.

"When it comes to air conditioners, more is not better. You really want to have it properly sized," Mr. Meisegeier says. A big unit in a small room will quickly cool the air, then shut down, but it needs to run longer in order to pull the moisture out of that same air.

"You'll end up with a cold, clammy house," Mr. Meisegeier says.

Some contractors might lean toward units too big for a home or room, so he recommends that consumers ask the contractor or salesperson for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Manual J calculations for the best fit.

Also, energy-friendly compact fluorescent (CFLs) bulbs give off clean, flicker-free illumination. Homeowners won't have to replace hard-to-reach bulbs too often, because they can last up to 10 years.

Normal bulbs, which expend 90 percent of their energy as heat, inefficiently provide illumination for 1,000 to 2,000 hours. The latest CFL bulbs, although they cost more, shine from 6,000 to 10,000 hours and are cool to the touch.

Mr. Meisegeier says many of a homeowner's conservation efforts involve retaining the heat and cool air already being generated.

Chevy Chase resident Dan Reicher found that out when he bought his circa-1912 home four years ago. Mr. Reicher conducted a "blower door" test for about $100 shortly after moving in to see where air might be escaping. An infrared camera pinpointed all air leaks within the house after all the windows and the front door were shut.

Consumers can find a list of experts in home-energy ratings, who can assist homeowners with such tests, at www.energystar.gov . First, go to the "find labeled homes" icon, then click on the "home energy rater" button. Some raters will opt for chemical smoke, in place of infrared beams, to see leaks in a home.

"I had the equivalent of a modest-size window open all year long," says Mr. Reicher, 45, who works as a visiting fellow with the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. The test showed him exactly where to apply weatherstripping, saving him time and money on extraneous material.

The U.S. Department of Energy says air infiltration accounts for about half of all energy used in home heating and cooling efforts. Plastic-based items such as plastic sealant, foam-plastic sheathing and plastic spray-foam seals can reduce such losses 10 percent to 50 percent.

Mr. Reicher didn't end his energy conservation with the weatherstripping. He installed an energy-efficient air-conditioning system, attached solar panels on his roof and signed on for Pepco's air-conditioner cycling program, which lets the power company shut off his unit briefly during peak usage hours for up to $15 a month credit.

On sunny days, the house generates more energy than his family can use, so he sells it back to Pepco, Mr. Reicher says.

For him, updating his new home "was a perfect opportunity to walk the talk," says the former Department of Energy employee.

Other home modifications can be inexpensive and easy to affect.

Those looking to shave dollars off their heating bills can buy a $20 thermal wrap to place around the water heater to capture heat loss, Mr. Meisegeier suggests. They also can replace aging or broken appliances with models bearing the Energy Star label. That demarcation means the appliance merits the approval of the government group Energy Star, which was formed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1992 to help consumers select more efficient building products and appliances.

About a fifth of all appliances bear the Energy Star stamp of approval.

One Fairfax Station resident who knows plenty about energy conservation is Sam Rashkin, national director of Energy Star for Homes in the District.

Mr. Rashkin's home teems with energy-friendly gear, from an efficient air-conditioning unit to a flood of CFL light bulbs.

He estimates he reduced air leakage in his house by 80 percent by aggressively sealing off all drafts with plastic foam.

"As things go along, I have my foam in case I see leaks," the ever-vigilant homeowner says.

Mr. Rashkin adds that spending more on energy-efficient products is a wiser investment than using the money for purchasing stocks or other investments.

Bill Prindle, director of building and utility programs with the District-based Alliance to Save Energy, says energy prices are forcing consumers to consider energy-saving methods. The alliance is a nonprofit coalition of business, government, environmental and consumer leaders who promote efficient energy use.

"Until last year or so, most Americans had been seeing historically low energy prices," he says. "There has been no price signal in the last decade to motivate people."

Many of the energy-saving measures are done for consumers.

Today's refrigerators, which tap a sizable chunk of a house's electrical bill, are 60 percent more efficient than models a decade ago, Mr. Prindle says.

"The average household's energy use hasn't increased that much. It's probably decreased a bit," he says, given increases in size and utility usage and what President Bush calls "vampire appliances," which constantly drain energy to keep memories, clocks, etc. humming.

Mr. Bush, in a speech last month before employees of the Department of Energy, said such devices use 4 percent of the average home's electricity. That translates, nationwide, into about 52 billion kilowatt-hours of power a year, or the equivalent of 26 average-size power plants.

Eric Zausner, president, chief executive and co-founder of the San Francisco-based Myhomekey Web site, says people don't realize the effect such modest changes as installing a ceiling fan or a water-cooler cover can have on their energy bills.

His site, which began last July, gives consumers home energy analyses along with links to energy-friendly products and maintenance services. More than 250,000 people have registered on the site, up from 100,000 in April.

"With energy costs rising in many parts of the country to all-time highs, energy conservation is top-of-mind for homeowners and renters alike," Mr. Zausner says.

Even your home computer system can be tweaked to maximize energy efficiency. Howard Locker, chief technology officer of IBM desktop personal systems, says homeowners should be aware of their monitor's activity to reduce unwanted energy depletions.

Home computers use energy in two key systems, the hard drive and the monitor, with the latter using more, from 120 to 200 watts per hour. A computer uses 50 to 80 watts when engaged, about 30 watts if idle.

Flat-panel monitors, a new trend in computer monitors, cost about 21/2 times more but use much less power. They offer efficiency and a flickerless image that is less stressful on the eyes.

Also, computer users should adjust their systems to skip the screen-saver mode and let the computer's monitor fade directly to black when not in use.

Newer computers offer an S-3 sleep-mode state, which allows the computer's RAM to continue operating while the rest of the computer shuts down. That saves energy, and when the computer is completely turned back on, it takes only seconds for whatever you were doing to continue.

"It doesn't have to reboot. The cursor is still active," Mr. Zausner says.

The computer, via the Internet, also can put people in touch with energy-efficient news and information.

For more consumer-friendly tips on energy conservation, visit www.ase.org/consumer or www.energystar.gov .

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