Sunday, July 28, 2013

Keeping It Cool

Published in the Sun 7-27-2013
Dahlia Lopez and her weatherized house

People used to live in Texas without air conditioning, but I wasn’t one of them.  My parents didn’t have air conditioning until the month before I was born, during the heat wave of 1954, when my father took pity on my pregnant mother and bought a window unit for the living room.  They put my crib in the cool room, so I became one of the first members of the AC generation.


We all know that in a hot, muggy climate like central Texas air conditioning is hands down the biggest electricity hog in our homes.  In the summer, air conditioning can account for 70 percent of the electric bill.  But knowing a fact about electricity, and being willing to live without air conditioning are two entirely separate things.  Just typing that sentence made me so hot I had to turn the thermostat down.  So what is an ecologically-minded person to do?


Most people, when they think about saving money on air conditioning, imagine turning up the thermostat and suffering.  There is certainly nothing wrong with adjusting the thermostat, and I highly recommend it, but what if you could be just as cool as you want and still use half the electricity?  Wouldn’t that be a no-brainer?


Does this scene ever happen at your house?  The kids are going in and out the kitchen door, leaving it wide open behind them.  Finally a practical person, usually the one who pays the electric bills, interrupts the fun by yelling, “Shut the door!  We can’t air condition the entire outdoors.”  The kids of course are thinking that it would be a really good idea to air condition the whole outdoors because, hey, it’s super hot out there.


But the truth is that, without being aware of it, many people are trying to cool the whole outdoors all the time, even when the door is closed.


Dahlia Lopez had that problem.  She lived in an old farm house that belonged to her grandparents back when people just resigned themselves to the ambient temperature.  Houses back then were not designed to keep cold air inside.  They were designed to let a breeze blow through, and that is exactly what Dahlia’s house did.  In the winter an arctic wind blowing through the bathroom turned an ordinary shower into an ordeal.  In the summer the house never felt cool and her utility bills were topping $300 a month, even though her house is not very big.  Not only was she hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but she was wasting money that she had better ways to spend.


Dahlia had recently retired and didn’t have the disposable income needed to remodel and weatherize her home, but she qualified for a city program that helped owners of older homes reduce their energy requirements.  An energy auditor did a blower door test, in which a big fan sucks air out of the house, allowing the auditor to find all the places where outside air is leaking in.  The test proved that Dahlia’s vintage house was no barrier to the elements, with air leaks around her windows and doors, through the attic, and even around her electrical outlets.  The auditor made recommendations, and then a contractor came in and blew fiberglass insulation into her attic and walls, insulated her outlets, sealed and replaced windows, and caulked and weather-stripped her doors.  She got new fiberglass batts and drywall in her bathroom, and solar screens on her windows.  This work was done in the winter and Dahlia noticed a difference right away.  She could go to bed without bundling up like an Eskimo.


The financial benefit hit home in the summer.  Prior to the weatherization work her June electricity consumption was 1600 kilowatt-hours.  This past June she used only 666 kilowatt-hours, a savings of about $100 on electricity in just one month.


If you live in an old drafty home, you certainly need an energy audit.  If your home is fairly modern but the electric bill seems too high in the summer, or if your air conditioner seems to be running all the time and you are still not comfortable, or if your attic is hot enough to bake bread, you may also have room for improvement.  An insulation company can make recommendations, which is fine if you already know that you need insulation, but if you are not quite sure what you need, an independent energy auditor can evaluate your house and find out exactly where you are wasting energy and save you hundreds of dollars a year on electricity.  Go to RESNET, Residential Energy Services Network, to find an auditor who is not selling anything but advice.


I know insulating your house is not very sexy, but it’s the most important energy conservation move you can make, reducing your carbon footprint and saving money at the same time.  Letting your conditioned air disappear into the atmosphere is like icing down your beer and leaving the ice chest open.  It’s just not cool.

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