Improving Sustainability in Existing Homes

I really enjoy dreaming about renovating my existing home to make it much more efficient and also someday building my own sustainable home. For me (and most others) building a new home or completing a major renovation is way out of reach for financial or other reasons. While it may make me feel warm and fuzzy when I have these sustainable dreams, I want to be able to do something now to make my home more sustainable. I want to reduce my costs and also increase my comfort and enjoyment in my house as it is now….without incurring high costs.

Luckily, there are quite a few things that can be done in an existing home to make it more sustainable, many of which are relatively cheap or even free.  I want to focus on these over a couple of posts to give you solutions that you can use without blowing your budget.

First, I would like to address a couple of potential questions:

What Do I Mean By Cheap?

I haven’t set a hard line as to what I consider cheap.

Over these next posts about cheap things you can do in your existing home I am looking at things that can be done easily and quickly and are much more cost effective than paying thousands of dollars for a major renovation. Generally I am looking for solutions that are as cheap as possible but not more than a couple hundred dollars. The goal is to improve the sustainability of your existing home on a budget…. a very small budget.

What is So Great About Energy Efficiency?

Reducing your energy use will not only be more sustainable to the environment but will also reduce the operating costs of your home and, when it comes to heating and cooling, can also increase your comfort.

In this post I will be focusing on energy efficiency in existing homes and cheap (or free) things that you can do to reduce energy use in your home. (I will save water efficiency for my next post.)

3 Main Areas of Energy Efficiency

I am going to break these energy efficiency strategies into 3 main areas:

  1. Saving Electricity
  2. Reducing Heating and Cooling Requirements
  3. Saving Hot Water

I am going to be covering a lot of solutions in these sections and am not going to go very deep into each of them. If you would like more information about specific solutions or have some that you would like to add (my list is not meant to be exhaustive by any means), leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

When I am talking about specific products, I have tried to include links to the products in the show notes so you can get more information about them or even buy them if you wish. Most of the items I have listed below are items that I have used myself. Some of these links (to Amazon or Homedepot.ca) are affiliate links which means if you choose to make a purchase through them I will earn a small commission, which helps me be able to produce more great content like this. Only buy items that you feel will help you on your journey to a more sustainable home.

I have prepared a PDF with a brief list of all of the items listed below.

Get the PDF of 16 Simple and Cheap Ways to Save Energy

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Are you ready to dive in?

1 – Saving Electricity

  1. Become aware of the electricity that you are using in your home. One easy way to do this is through using an energy meter. These are devices that you plug into an outlet and then plug any device into. The energy meter then displays the energy that you are using and can be programmed with your electricity cost to display the cost of using the device. There are many energy meters out there. They are carried in some hardware and retail stores but are easily found on Amazon. I got the energy meter that I am using off of Amazon.

       

    When performance is measured performance improves – Thomas S. Monson

    Simply by measuring your energy use you can understand and improve it.
    Getting an energy meter in my opinion, is one of the first steps that people should take to save energy in their home.

  2. Unplug laptop, tablet, and cell phone chargers or any other electronics when they are not in use. Even when they are off, many electronic devices still use a small amount of electricity when they are plugged in. This is know as a phantom load. You can find out what the phantom load of different devices are by using an energy meter.
  3. Ensure you have LED bulbs installed in the light fixtures that you use most.
  4. Ensure any night lights you have are LED and not incandescent. Night lights don’t use much electricity but they are often on 10 or more hours every night and sometimes they are on 24/7. Any savings can add up over the course of the year…. Especially if you have several nightlights around your home.

    Now let me tell you of some awesome products that can be used as nightlights.

    Snap Power is a company that has developed a couple of awesome products that have LED lights built into cover plates that can be installed around your electrical plugs or light switches.
    The beauty of them is that all you have to do is change the original cover plate with their Guidelight plate (for plug receptacles) or Switchlight plate (for light switches) and the light functions instantly and even has a light sensor built-in to keep the light off when the room is bright enough. It is nice to be able to install a nightlight without losing a place to plug something else in.
    I have the switchlights in my home and love them. (As of the time of writing I do not receive any commissions for promoting these products but think they are amazing and everyone should get them.)

  5. Consider how you are cooking your meals. Are you heating your entire oven when just a small toaster oven will suffice?  What about possible energy savings by using an Instant Pot instead of a standard slow cooker?
    Green Energy Futures had a recent episode where they featured Ron Kube (The Energy Detective) who compared the energy used by different cooking methods.
  6. Finally, probably one of the easiest ways you can save electricity is to turn your lights off in rooms you are not using. When you have kids at home though this is not so easy and may require creative threats and consequences for when lights are left on.
    If you are willing to invest a bit of money, however, you can get a motion sensing switch which will usually cost $20 or more per switch. Here is one that is available from Home Depot in Canada.

    One thing I plan on looking into is a comparison of the electricity it takes to run a motion sensor switch 24/7 to the electricity it saves by keeping the lights off when no one is in the room.

2 – Reducing Heating and Cooling Requirements

According to a residential energy consumption survey completed in 2009 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, space heating accounts for 42% of a home’s energy use and air conditioning accounts for 6%.

Any step to reduce our heating requirements has the potential to make a large difference due to the large amount of energy used in heating our homes. In warmer climates, reducing cooling requirements can also result in significant energy savings. Reducing your cooling requirements can also significantly increase your comfort during hot seasons.

So what can you do to reduce your heating and cooling requirements and get some of those savings?

  1. Use a programmable thermostat to turn down the temperature in your home (or do it manually yourself) a few degrees at night or when you are away. (You can also turn up the temperature when you are away in the summer or in warmer climates to reduce your air conditioning load).
    **Never let the interior temperature get below +15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) in weather below -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). There may be locations within your exterior walls or other parts of your home that will be much colder than this during cold weather and if the set temperature is below this your chances of freezing a pipe increase.**
  2. When you don’t need light through a window in cold weather keep the curtains or blinds closed. This will provide a small area of still air next to the window which provides a small insulating function. **Keep an eye out for condensation on these windows though.** In very cold weather on low quality windows this can even result in ice build-up. This is because the temperature on the inside face of the glass will get lower when the curtains or blinds are closed. If you see condensation on the windows lower the relative humidity in your home and keep the curtains or blinds open a bit at the bottom of the window to allow a small amount of air flow onto the window to keep it from getting too cold.

    Window with sand coloured roll sun blinds

    Window with roll sun blinds

  3. In warm weather keep the curtains or blinds closed on windows that the sun is shining directly through (Adobe Window Image) to help prevent the sun from warming the interior of your home.
  4. Ensure the exterior sides of your curtains are a light, reflective colour.
    In our first home we had a large living room window that faced east. The morning sun would shine directly into the living room and make it unbearably hot just a couple hours into the day. We had brown curtains that we would keep closed in an effort to keep the room from getting hot. It made a noticeable difference. We still weren’t comfortable though and tried pinning white sheets to the back of the curtains. This meant in theory that the heat from the sun would be reflected off the light coloured sheets instead of being absorbed into the brown curtains. This made an amazing difference. So if you have sun shining directly into a window and making your room unbearably hot make sure the sun-facing sides of your curtains are light coloured to reflect as much heat from the sun as possible.
  5. shadeOmatic Cellular blinds

    If you are looking for new blinds get cellular blinds which provide added insulation to your window when closed and can make a huge difference in the winter time at keeping you rooms warmer, especially if you have lower quality or older windows.  ***Due to the increased insulation value, any condensation issues will be amplified with cellular blinds***

  6. Experiment with closing or opening different doors or heat vents in your home particularly in rooms that you do not regularly use. Pay attention and see how it affects the temperature and air currents within your home. It is important to know that this may affect the balance of your heating system and possibly reduce it’s overall efficiency.

3 – Saving Hot Water

Every ounce of hot water you use in your home takes energy to heat. Thus, saving hot water saves energy.

So what are some basic strategies to reducing your hot water use?

  1. Use a low flow shower head which will reduce your overall water use in the shower. Research different shower heads and if possible (if you know someone that has one and it isn’t too awkward) try out different low flow shower heads before you buy one.
    We learned a logical fact from personal experience; a side effect of using a low-flow shower head is that if it uses half as much water it may take twice as long to rinse out your hair… particularly for those with really long hair.
  2. Get a shower head with a trickle button.
    When we bought our current house my shower would always run out of hot water before I was done (I must confess though that I like long hot showers…and our hot water tank is a bit on the small side, only 30 gallons, I believe) and the shower head appeared to be from the early 90’s. I went to Walmart and found a nice, cheap WaterPik shower head that had a “trickle button”. Once you got adequately wet you would push the button on the shower head which would reduce the flow to just a bit more than a trickle while you soaped up. Then you would release the button and have full flow right away. You wouldn’t even have to set the temperature again as would happen if you just turned the water off. I have been using my shower head for 5 years now, never run out of hot water (same size of tank still), and absolutely love my WaterPik shower head. The links below are for what appear to be the current model of the shower head that I am using.
       
  3. Get a shower faucet that allows you to set the flow and temperature separately. Most shower faucets currently installed in homes only allow you to adjust the mix of hot and cold water to get your desired temperature, which results in the hot and cold water being on full flow in the center of the temperature range. I do not have extensive personal experience with any of these products but have included a couple links below for reference.

    TRINSIC®
    Monitor 17 Series Valve Trim

  4. Pipe insulation can be found at most hardware stores such as Lowes and Home Depot

    If you have an unfinished basement or other areas in your home that allow you to easily access your hot water pipes, install pipe insulation over them. As hot water travels from the tank to the point of use it loses small amounts of heat as it travels through the pipes. The longer the distance, the more heat is lost. Depending on the conditions in your home I would say that this strategy may not provide any noticeable difference if your sinks or shower are less than 15 or so feet from your tank. In my house I have over 30 feet of piping to get to my bathrooms and insulating the pipes before I finished my basement made a difference of 5 degrees or more.

Straying a bit from the cheap options we can also consider the energy it takes to keep hot water hot inside your hot water tank. Tankless water heaters address the issue of energy wasted heating water when you are not using it but there are 3 things to consider:

  1. If you have hard water in your area you will need to install a water softener so that the narrow channels in the tankless heater don’t get clogged with mineral deposits.
  2. Tankless heaters also generally require more regular maintenance than traditional heaters to ensure they are running optimally.
  3. If you are looking at replacing a perfectly good tank hot water heater just to get the energy savings from having a tankless hot water heater…. Reconsider. The payback period of the energy savings will not likely be worth the cost of the new hot water heater.

If you are in the market for a new hot water heater and have it in a room that is at least 100 square feet (10 square meters) consider getting a heat pump hot water heater… sometimes called a hybrid hot water heater. These tank hot water heaters operate with similar principles to those used in air conditioners and use the heat within the room to heat the water in the tank… which results in the room getting a bit cooler. This is achieved with just the use of a pump and there is only supplemental electric heat that kicks on when needed to meet demand. These use far less energy than traditional gas or electric tank hot water heaters.

One final note in regards to hot water heaters: from a financial feasibility standpoint, in order to get the most value, and savings out of my investment, I would only consider replacing a hot water heater if it was already 12-15 years old or older, or if I used tons of hot water and would be in the home for at least another 7-10 years.

Though not terribly expensive when compared to a major renovation, there is a great price range in these options to reduce your hot water usage. Remember that with these options you are reducing both energy and water usage which gives you double points in increasing the sustainability of your home.

Closure

Whether you are looking to save electricity, reduce your heating or cooling needs, or reduce you hot water usage, there are many options out there to reduce your energy use in your home without blowing your budget.

If you have any ideas that I have not listed, leave a comment below.

I have prepared a PDF with a brief list of all of these items.

Get the PDF of 16 Simple and Cheap Ways to Save Energy

* indicates required



If you have found this post valuable and if you know someone who you think would also benefit from it please share it with them.

Thank you so much for reading and until next time… Go do something to make your home a little more sustainable.

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