News & Politics

Green House

Making your home more efficient also means lowering heating and cooling costs. Here’s how to cut energy bills by as much as one-third.

Thermographic photography reveals energy leaks in an old house. Red and yellow spots are where heat is escaping to the outside. Blue sections of glass may be newer double-pane windows that keep in heat.

There’s nothing sexy about upgrading your home’s insulation. The same goes for caulking drafty joints. But the temptation of lower utility bills is seducing more Washingtonians to make their homes’ energy efficiency a priority.

“Energy-efficient upgrades can reduce costs by about one-third,” says Maria T. Vargas of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. Those upgrades also include replacing appliances and windows.

The Alliance to Save Energy projects that the average American household will spend $2,160 on home energy costs in 2010.

“The average house is about 40 years old,” says Doris Iklé of CMC Energy Services in Bethesda. “That house was built when codes were laxer and when energy was cheaper. They are not as efficient as houses that are built today.”

DC’s Department of the Environment began offering free energy audits to owners of single-family houses in the fall of 2006. Last year, the department provided more than 1,200 audits. During a two-to-three-hour home visit, technicians first assess the house’s thermal envelope and HVAC system; then they administer a blower door test, which traces leaks by sucking air out of the house using a vacuum-like fan affixed to the front door. Homeowners receive written reports with recommendations for improving their house’s efficiency.

DC homeowners can call 202-673-6700 to sign up for a free energy audit. Non-District residents can identify certified energy auditors at

Some utility companies offer online resources for dissecting bills. Pepco customers can log in to “my account” at to have their energy usage analyzed and compared with that of other homes in their service area. Dominion Virginia Power offers energy-savings calculators at

Reston homeowner Larry Wright retooled his home’s energy efficiency after an energy audit. “The house felt drafty,” he says. So in April 2008 he hired Troy Tanner of Home Energy Detective in Manassas to evaluate the five-bedroom Colonial where Wright lives with his wife, three kids, and dog.

A smoke test revealed leaks in his 15-year-old house’s construction. “All of a sudden, the smoke was rushing to one spot,” Wright says. Based on Tanner’s recommendations, he made a number of upgrades—starting with simple fixes he could do himself, such as sealing gaps with inexpensive foam caulk. He hired Tanner’s crew to handle the rest, from sealing the top plates in his attic to increasing insulation.

Wright spent $3,500, including $400 for the audit. He has saved around $350 on energy bills in the first year and figures he’ll recoup his money in ten years. The payback might have been quicker, he says, had he done more of the repairs himself, but he’s pleased with the results.

“We’re saving money, and more importantly the house is more comfortable,” he says. “How much do you pay for comfort?”

Wright says that when he needed to purchase a new furnace and air conditioner, he was able to replace both with models that are more efficient and less expensive. That’s because his upgrades have lowered his heating-and-air-conditioning load, a function calculated based on house size, windows, insulation, rate of air infiltration, climate, and more. A house with a lower load needs smaller equipment, which costs less to buy and operate.

Lower utility bills aren’t the only financial incentives for increasing a house’s energy efficiency; the economic-stimulus package signed into law last February tripled the tax credits available to homeowners who completed energy-efficient renovations in 2009 or who do so this year. Homeowners can recoup 30 percent of the cost of eligible products, up to $1,500. Details are at

Montgomery County homeowners also can apply for up to $250 in tax credits for improvements such as weather sealing and installing programmable thermostats. Details are at Arlington County doesn’t have cash incentives, but it offers lots of guidance and resources about eco-friendly building through its Green Home Choice program at

“This is a unique time where achieving green objectives is part and parcel with building the economy,” says George Hawkins, former director of the District Department of the Environment and now general manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority. “That’s a remarkable opportunity.”

Sealing Your Home’s Leaks

If you want to make a sizable dent in your energy costs, Maria Vargas says, focus on heating and cooling. They account for half of a home’s energy costs.

Beyond replacing clunky furnaces and air conditioners with more-efficient models, most homeowners would be wise to upgrade sealing and insulation—otherwise, they’re essentially heating and cooling the outdoors.

“The typical home has enough cracks and holes in it that it’s equivalent to leaving a window open all year long,” Vargas says. “Money is literally going out of the house.”

Leaky ductwork can waste 20 to 40 percent of heating and cooling energy, says Max Sherman of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. To fix leaks, homeowners can use mastic sealant. It’s also a good idea to insulate ducts—particularly those that pass through unconditioned spaces such as attics and crawl spaces.

To determine problem spots, begin in the attic. “There should be at least a foot or two of insulation,” says Chris Dorsi, coauthor of The Homeowner’s Handbook to Energy Efficiency. “If there’s less, it’s probably time to add more.” Upgrade attic insulation to at least R-40 (14 to 16 inches). Most energy issues are related to the attic, Tanner says, followed by crawl spaces, basements, and attached garages.

Two other easy spots to check for insulation are under kitchen sinks—where pipes meet the wall—and around electrical boxes. First shut off the circuit breaker, then slide a bamboo skewer or other non-metal apparatus behind the cover plate to investigate whether the wall cavities are filled with insulation, as they should be.

You can also locate leaky spots with the help of a professional energy auditor or with a simple trick: On a windy day, light a candle and walk around your house, pausing in suspect areas—windows, doors, outlets, joints, recessed lights—to see whether the flame or smoke blows sideways, a sign that air is leaking into the room. Fill small cracks—less than three-eighths of an inch—with inexpensive acrylic or acrylic-latex caulking. One-part foam can plug larger gaps, while more costly two-part foam can block bigger holes and surfaces.

Though insulation upgrades can be costly, Dorsi says you can expect a 10-to-20-percent annual return.

Four years ago, Sally White and her husband, Rob Drucker, began work on a large addition to their small brick Colonial in Arlington. At the same time, they upgraded the insulation throughout using a combination of cotton batting and spray polyurethane foam. Though the size of their home grew by 58 percent, to more than 3,400 square feet, energy usage has gone down. “Our highest bill—in the heat of the summer in 2008—was $100,” White says. “That’s less than we spent with half the house.”

Energy Going Out the Window?

Inefficient windows and doors are common energy wasters. The Department of Energy estimates that Energy Star windows, which have multiple panes and a glass coating that reflects infrared light, can save Washington homeowners about $500 a year in energy when compared with standard single-pane windows. While they can cost $275 or more each to purchase and install, Energy Star windows can pay for themselves in 4 to 10 years compared with other double-pane options, says Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

“The comfort benefit is immediate, and the federal government helps pay,” Callahan says. Thirty percent of the cost of qualified windows, up to $1,500, is eligible for a tax credit. Experts agree, however, that replacing windows solely for energy savings isn’t cost-effective, because it can take years to recoup your investment. For a less expensive solution, try installing efficient storm windows with low-emittance—called “low-E”—glass.

Even window coverings can have an impact. “The main reason homes overheat in the summer is that the sun beats down on your roof,” Chris Dorsi says. “If you have south- or west-facing windows that get really hot, install awnings or shades, or close the drapes during the day. It can have big savings.” Likewise, leave drapes open during the day in winter to channel the sun’s heat.

A Matter of Degrees

One of the most obvious ways to save energy is by adjusting the thermostat. “You can save up to 5 percent of your bill for every degree you dial back,” Callahan says.

Programmable thermostats, which cost about $100, top most energy experts’ lists of must-haves. According to Maria Vargas, homeowners can save roughly $180 annually by programming their thermostat so it’s set a few degrees lower or higher during hours when houses are empty. The same savings can be had by manually adjusting the thermostat, but programmable ones eliminate the need to remember on your way out the door.

There are more ways to save on heating and cooling. Replace HVAC air filters monthly, and have equipment serviced at the beginning of spring and fall. If your equipment is 15 years old or more, a replacement may be in order. Just be sure new equipment is the appropriate size. Bigger isn’t necessarily better: An oversize system does an inadequate job of keeping houses comfortable due to frequent on/off cycling.

Heating water is the second-most-expensive energy activity in a house after climate control, Callahan says. She suggests turning down a water heater to 130 degrees—others say 120 is even better—which is still hot enough for laundry, dishes, and showers but can cut costs by 3 to 5 percent. You might also consider washing all but the dirtiest clothes in cold water, which takes half the energy of a hot-water load.

Lightening Up

Light bulbs account for about 20 percent of a home’s electric bill. Swap incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact fluorescent lights, starting with fixtures that get used the most. In addition to consuming up to 75 percent less energy, CFLs radiate 75 percent less heat, thereby reducing cooling costs in summer.

“CFLs pay for themselves in less than half a year,” Callahan says, “and that’s assuming the bulb is on only three hours a day.”

Pepco partners with Maryland retailers, such as Safeway and Walmart, to subsidize a discounted price on CFL bulbs. Store locations are at and Save

Although appliances have gotten more efficient over the years, people today use more energy than ever, due in part to gadgets that weren’t in widespread use a decade ago, from BlackBerry chargers to large flat-screen TVs, which use more energy than a standard television.

Home products in about 60 categories have earned the Energy Star label, which indicates that they meet strict federal guidelines and are on average about 30 percent more energy-efficient than conventional counterparts. Details on costs, features, and payback periods are at

Energy Star refrigerators consume 50 percent less electricity than those manufactured before 1993. Says Dorsi: “If you have a refrigerator that’s more than 15 years old and you buy a new Energy Star one, you could save up to $100 a year in electricity.” In many households, refrigerators are the biggest electricity guzzlers, exacerbated by the fact that many people hang on to old models to chill drinks in a basement or garage.

Regardless of the type of refrigerator you own, you can reduce its energy consumption by controlling the temperature—experts suggest 35 to 38 degrees—and keeping it fully stocked, even if that means filling space with a gallon of water.

Appliances with remote controls or standby lights consume energy constantly, even while shut off or not in use—including cell-phone and laptop-computer chargers. A modern household’s energy bill includes up to $20 a month on “parasite” loads that could be eliminated by plugging electronics into power strips, says Dorsi, which allow less energy loss—and can be turned off with one switch.

What might seem trivial adds up, Vargas says: Americans spend $800 million a year on energy consumed by TVs that are turned off.

More Energy-Saving Advice

The energy offices of DC, Maryland, and Virginia have lots of information for residents, from money-savings tips and contractor recommendations to programs that provide assistance.

District Department of the Environment
: 202-673-6700.

Maryland Energy Administration’s Maryland Home Performance: 240-260-7655.

Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy
: 804-692-3200.

Home Energy Saver do-it-yourself energy audit tool.

Tax Incentives Assistance Project, which outlines current tax incentives for energy-efficient products and technologies