If you’ve ever wanted to make your home more efficient, have we got a story for you. A while back, a PGE employee decided it was time to make her recently purchased 1960’s, all-electric home more energy efficient. We’ll look back on how Sarah got started on this journey and how she prioritized her actions over the years to give her home a full energy “makeover.”
Early on, the pre-purchase home inspection on Sarah’s midcentury ranch identified several issues to consider that would improve her home, including insulation, windows, heating and water heating. But like most homeowners, she needed to make choices that fit her budget.
With budget in mind, a couple of the challenges right off the bat were figuring out what would have the most impact, so she'd know where to start. Sarah began her investigation online with Energy Trust of Oregon. They have a valuable page with tools and information that helps people evaluate their home’s current energy use and determine which energy improvements offer the most bang for the buck. They can even provide incentives and help you find a qualified contractor. For Sarah, it was the perfect place to start.
After answering a few questions about her house, she received a good snapshot of her home’s current energy use along with steps to reduce energy costs. In fact, the recommended energy-saving improvements could trim her energy use by up to 47 percent!
A new heating system was at the top of the list but there were plenty of other ways to save. Upgrading attic insulation, sealing air leaks, LED lighting, water heater and getting rid of the old fridge in the garage. Sarah thought the old aluminum windows would need to be replaced, but they weren’t even on the list of recommendations. Go figure.
Looking for more answers, Sarah wanted detailed information to help her prioritize these energy improvements. After researching Energy Trust of Oregon trade allies , she booked a energy efficiency contractor to conduct an in-depth home energy audit. The cost and comprehensiveness of energy audits vary, but prices start at around $200.
The purpose of these audits is to calculate how much energy a home uses in heating/cooling, lighting, appliances and water heating. But they also determine where and how much energy escapes through air leaks or poor insulation and make custom recommendations for energy upgrades, with estimated savings and costs. As is often the case, Sarah's contractor was qualified to do the upgrades as well, and even applied the audit fee toward her first project.
The contractor Sarah chose spent several hours examining the attic, crawl space, appliances, heating and water heating. He also used some high-tech methods including a blower-door test , infrared imaging and computer modeling. After all the poking and prodding around the house was done, Sarah received a 20-page report packed with data, charts and graphs.
This report, including cost estimates and available incentives , laid out Sarah's best plan of attack, prioritizing the projects that would save her the most, first. That way, she'd see the biggest difference in her bill, which could help her save for the next project. In her case, the biggest impact would come from sealing up air leaks and improving attic insulation.
Sarah’s new house still had a number of original charming features, but the radiant ceiling heat wasn’t one of them. Shortly after she moved in, the heat stopped working in the kitchen, living room, dining room and family room. These systems were never very energy efficient and today, there’s no one left in the area with the expertise to make repairs. A new high-efficiency heat pump would be next on the list. Not only would it provide efficient heating in the winter, but Sarah got the added bonus of cooling during the summer months.
Sure, things like caulk, insulation or even heat pumps aren’t exactly “cosmetic” upgrades. But that’s where appliances can really shine. Even if they’re not stainless steel! Appliances account for about 13 percent of a household’s energy costs. But in Sarah’s case it was higher – accounting for about 21 percent of her electric bill. The old side-by-side refrigerator was the biggest offender. Sarah decided to replace it, and given her budget, saved other appliance upgrades for when she could afford an entire kitchen makeover.
Earlier, we mentioned how Sarah was pleasantly surprised that her old windows didn’t need to be replaced. Since she needed window coverings to provide privacy, the contractor recommended energy efficient cellular or “honeycomb” shades. While adding an insulating value of R-2 to R-5 , these shades also cut drafts and improve comfort!
Sarah completed her home’s energy makeover with lighting upgrades around the house. The new LEDs use up to 85 percent less energy than her old lighting, come in dimmable options and overall have become very affordable and flexible. Even if you’re not ready to take on a larger scale energy makeover at your house, this is a great DIY project that yields immediate results.
There’s a cautionary saying about fixing up older homes that goes something like this: “Beware of older homes, they’ll take as much time and money as you’re willing to give them.” In Sarah’s case, she was very smart and strategic with all her improvements. By choosing to focus on efficiency first, she saved energy and money while also improving the look and feel of her home. When you do this, you’re able to get the added bonus of saving money that helps offset the costs for other home improvements you want to do. Not a bad way to go!