Greene Publishing, Inc.
Before the recent rains brought some relief from the weeks-long drought and daily triple-digit temperatures, stepping from a cool, air-conditioned interior space into the blue-white heat of midday was enough to take a person’s breath away. Part of it was almost certainly from the shock of being hit in the face with a blast from a furnace, but there may have also been thoughts of outrageous utility bills skittering around in the minds of many.
Staying cool is especially important to seniors, who are more prone to heat stress and dehydration in extreme summer weather. Avoiding heat-related health issues means drinking plenty of water, of course, and staying out of the extreme heat as much as possible during the hottest part of the day. That usually means staying indoors or somewhere with air conditioning.
The same advice is good for people of any age, but when economic times are tough, people worry about utility bills.
Seniors in particularly are likely to be living on fixed incomes, and higher utility bills can be a big worry.
However, there are steps people can take to bring their utility bills down, and a little net surfing will bring them a plethora of tips for cutting energy costs.
But how well do all those cost-cutting tips work?
Tri-County Electric Cooperative, serving Madison County residents, has an interactive website (www.tcec.com/ click on “Together We Save”) where homeowners can take a virtual tour of a typical home for a “self-energy audit.” Going from room to room, they can try things like adding insulation or switching out old appliances for new Energy Star models to see if they think the estimated savings over time would be worth the upfront expense. Or they can see what something as simple and cost-free as turning off light switches and closing window blinds could save.
Keith Ruff of Tri-County says that the most frequent problems he sees in the Madison area are faulty heating and cooling units and poorly insulated homes, especially older mobile homes. “The rent may be cheaper, but the energy bill will be almost doubled,” he said. He encourages customers to go to the website and do the self-energy audit, and if they still have questions, call Tri-County Customer Service at 973-2285. A member service representative can answer any questions and also take requests for an on-site energy audit.
“I know times are tough and money’s tight,” said Ruff. “But we’re here to help our members.”
Progress Energy, serving residents in the municipalities of Greenville, Madison and Lee, also offers home energy audits to its customers and provides a customized report based on their findings. Also, customers who take the home energy audits are then eligible for a number of incentives in the form of rebates to correct some of the problems, such as attic insulation or insulated windows.
To visit the home energy audit website, go to progress-energy.com/save and access the home energy check. Just make sure you are in Florida section rather than the Carolinas, because the programs are a little different for each area.
Suzanne Grant of Progress Energy said that the three highest energy users in the typical home are the cooling system, the hot water heater, and the refrigerator; often minor changes to these three will show savings. “Air conditioning is usually about a third of your energy cost and every degree below 78 adds about 10 percent to this part of your bill,” said Grant. Also, using ceiling fans enhances the cool feeling. “Just turn the fans off when you leave the room.”
When it comes to the hot water heater, setting the thermostat at 120 degrees results in significant savings because many people have their water heater set significantly higher.
As for the refrigerator, something as simple as keeping the coils vacuumed will make a difference. “I have a cat so I find that I have to do it every week,” said Grant. Something else she learned from Progress Energy was that full refrigerators and freezers operate more efficiently. If people don’t keep that much food in their fridges, filling Tupperware containers with water and putting them in the fridge with help retain the cold and save energy.
Another thing she learned from her grandmother, who grew up without air-conditioning, was cooking outside on the grill during the summer, and preparing cold suppers during the summer, such as sandwiches and salads or anything that was good served cold.
Tips for lowering energy costs in the summer:
WINDOW UNIT AC
If you already have one:
• Change the filter every month.
• Keep furniture, drapes and other obstructions out of the airflow path
• Use ceiling or box fans to better circulate the cool air and try raising the thermostat five degrees. Turn the fans off when you leave the room. They don’t make the room cooler, they just make it feel cooler.
If buying one:
• Bigger is not better. Buy the size that fits the room, allowing for how many windows it has and whether it faces north, south, etc. A unit that it too big for the room will have to work harder to achieve the same cool ‘feeling’ and cost you more, because it will cool the air and cycle off before it has removed all the humidity. Homeowners end up dialing the thermostat even lower to dry the air out to a comfortable level.
• Look for a SEER number (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) of at least 11. More efficient units are more expensive to buy, but in hot climates they will pay for themselves over the years with lower utility bills.
CENTRAL AIR/HVAC SYSTEM
If you already have one:
• Have your HVAC system professionally inspected at the beginning of each cooling season. Make sure the duct seals are all airtight. In eight out of 10 houses in the South, leaking air ducts waste more energy than any other problem, and can reduce your system’s efficiency by up to 20 percent.
• Make sure all ductwork is insulated.
• Make sure your condenser unit outside has plenty of room to disperse the heat it removes from your house. Don’t crowd it with shrubs, outdoor garbage cans, etc.
• Try to make sure your air conditioning condenser unit has some shade – the air it pulls into your house will be cooler to start with and will require less energy to cool. If it has no shade, plant two or three fast-growing shade trees a few yards from your unit.
• Close off rooms not being used and close the vents to those rooms.
If buying a system:
• Make sure the SEER number (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) is 13 or better. (14 in warmer climates like ours.)
• If you have an old system with a SEER rating of eight or lower, think about replacing the old system. You should be able to recoup the cost in just a few years.
For more information about energy audits and other energy saving tips, contact Progress Energy at 800-700-8744, or visit their website, www.progress-energy.com.
LIGHT BULBS: About 10 percent of the average utility bill comes from lighting. So does quite a bit of incidental household heat that the air-conditioning system has to dispose of.• Replace standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). They use much less energy and most will last long enough to pay for themselves twice. If you don’t want to replace all your bulbs at once, start with just the lights you use the most often and replace the others as they burn out.
• Go to lower wattage bulbs. A 30-watt bulb will use half the electricity of a 60-watt.
• If you use tube fluorescent lights anywhere in your home, use electronic ballasts rather than conventional magnetic ballasts. Electronic ballasts use 40 percent less energy, are flicker-free, and eliminate the hum.
• Turn the lights off every time you leave a room.
• Keep lamps and other heat producers away from your thermostat. They’ll make your AC run longer and work harder.
• Set the thermostat for 85 or higher before you leave for work, and turn it back to 78 when you return. Install a programmable thermostat and you won’t have to worry about forgetting to change the settings.
• Wrap your hot water heater. Insulating water heater jackets can be bought at most home improvement stores for $10-$15, and you can install them yourself.
MISCELLANEOUS HEAT PRODUCERS/REDUCERS:
• Keep blinds closed and curtains drawn during the heat of the day and on the sunny side of the house (South and West)
• Computers and other office equipment generate heat as well, even when they’re in stand-by mode. If they’re plugged into a wall outlet, the AC adaptors on the power cords still use electricity, even when the equipment has been switched off (you can feel the warmth of the adaptor when you pick it up in your hand). Use a power strip for your computer/office equipment – turn everything off at once with the flip of a switch rather than unplugging each component individually.
• Gadgets like cell phone chargers, rechargeable dust busters, gaming consoles, wireless routers, cable boxes, DVD/CD players and microwaves use some power when in standby mode (standby power for appliances not in use typically accounts for 5 -10 percent of residential energy use). Unplug them when not in use, or plug groups of electronics into a power strip and turn everything off with the flip of a switch.
• Television sets with instant power-on capability also still use power when you turn them off with the remote. Once they’re turned off, they go into standby mode, using up to 50 watts of energy while waiting for the remote to signal them to turn on again. Unplug them or use a power strip to make it easier to really turn them off.
LONG-TERM HEAT REDUCERS:
• About 30 percent of the heat in your house comes through the roof. Check the insulation in your attic.
• Plant fast growing shade trees on the south and west sides of the house.
• Install awnings over windows, especially on the south and west sides.
• Use weather-stripping around all windows and exterior doors.