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Household energy conservation is a very practical and realistic approach to conserving energy within our society. US households consume a tremendous amount of natural gas as well as electric energy. It has been calculated that the amount of energy consumed within the US increased exponentially from about 1850 to 1975. If energy continued to increase at this rate, we would be experiencing severe energy shortages in our current society. Luckily, steps towards conservation, including various energy regulations, have curbed that growth somewhat, brining the predicted 160 Qbtu/yr for the year 2000 down to around 93.8 Qbtu/yr by the year 1996. However, household energy usage is still a major issue as households consume about 38% of the total consumed energy and contribute greatly to natural gas consumption and issues such as global warming. Therefore, it is important that people understand how we use energy in the household and what steps can be taken to conserve that energy.
One process within households that contributes greatly to energy consumption is space heating. Space heating simply refers to the heating of the air throughout the house. It has been calculated that space heating consumes about 5.3 Qbtu per year. About 3.7 Qbtu come from natural gas and about .9 Qbtu come from Fuel oil. Only about .4 Qbtus of electricity are consumed by space heating.
There are various ways which one can space heat their house. The most common way is to use a furnace, however, stoves, fireplaces, electric resistance heaters and electrically powered heat pumps can also be used to heat the house. Furnaces run mostly off natural gas and tend to be around 60-90% efficient. Older units can be as low as 50% efficient. Electric resistance heaters are usually around 100% efficient at producing heat. However, this statistic is slightly misleading when thinking about total efficiency because you must account for the electric energy being consumed by the heater. Power plants are only able to produce electric energy from natural gas at about 35% efficiency. Consequently, electricity is more expensive than natural gas to produce, making electric resistance heaters more expensive to operate. This energy cost must also be accounted for when adding up the total cost of electric resistance heating.
Another way to heat ones house is to use a fireplace.
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Another problem with fireplaces is that they are very inefficient. Fireplaces are generally only about 40-65% efficient at producing heat. If the fireplace windows are open, fireplaces can even have a negative efficiency as heat is sucked in from around the house and sent up the flue. However, efficient fireplaces can be constructed that have tubing around the back. With tubing, air from the room can flow behind the fireplace, get heated up, and then re-circulate throughout the room, allowing for greater heat distribution. The facts say that firewood can provide energy at a rate of 12-30 million Btu’s per cord (128 ft cubed stack of wood). The large range occurs because higher density wood can produce more energy than lower density wood. However, when measuring energy production in relation to weight, all wood produces about 8600 Btu’s per lb.
Another method that can be used to heat ones house is solar heating. This does not refer to using energy from solar panels to heat up the house, but refers to using the actual heat of sunlight to warm the house. This process works by allowing sunlight in through the windows (for us, southern facing windows) and trapping it with well insulated walls. The sunlight that gets trapped by the walls turns into heat, and in process heats the house. The efficiency of this process can be made greater with better insulation in the walls, but the average is about a 60-90% conversion efficiency from sunlight to heat. Another factor that needs to be taken into account when using solar heat is the transparency of the glass windows. The more translucent the windows are, the more light enters the house and the more heat is obtained. Window design is also important in allowing in the greatest amount of light in while also keeping it evenly distributed.
When thinking about space heating, one must also think about heat conservation. Research proves that most US houses can conserve a large amount of the energy that is used for space heating. The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory tested this idea by calculating the amount of Btu’s consumed per year for space heating by random houses around North America and comparing it to houses that have been specifically designed for heat conservation. These numbers were then compared against the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory standards for low and medium infiltration as well as the National Association of Home builders’ 1975-1976 building practice. Results proved that the average American house conserved about 30 to 45*106 more Btu’s than the standard level. The houses that had been designed for heat conservation used around 20 to 40*106 Btu’s less than suggested the standard level. The research also proved that the consumption of 1 Btu/sq. ft is an achievable goal for heating energy consumption. This number is very low compared to the average 7 Btu/ sq. consumed by most houses.
Things that can be done to conserve energy with space heating are changing the thermostat settings and insulating the house. Thermostat setting changes can save a lot of energy if you simply lower the temperatures at night and when no one is present in the house. The best way to do this is to lower the temperature to around 55 when heat is not needed and then bring it back up to temperature before you will need it. This way, energy is conserved and no comfort is lost in the process. Another way to conserve energy is to turn the daily temperature setting from around the average 72 degrees Fahrenheit to around 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature still provides a comfortable living environment and doesn’t require as much energy to maintain. Insulation is also important in conserving energy. It has been proven that if a house was completely insulated, no outside source would be needed to keep the house at a constant temperature. However, this is not possible since a house requires air infiltration. Despite this fact, houses have been built that are heated only by existing internal heating sources such as lights and stoves. When determining how effective your insulation is, you must take into account the materials that you are using. Materials with a higher R-value, such as polyurethane boards and urea foam, provide greater heat resistance. R-values are listed for most materials when they are purchased and determine the amount of heat resistance in relationship to area and width. Therefore, you must also take into account the thickness of a material when you are calculating its total heat resistance. Consequently, one must pay close attention to the materials they use to insulate their house. Through choosing the right materials, one can easily save a lot of energy in maintaining a heated house.
Something else that must be taken into account when conserving energy in the house is air infiltration. Air infiltration accounts for a complete change of air in a house about once per hour. It also accounts for about 1/3 of the heat loss in the average house. Therefore, a lot of heat energy is thrown away by air infiltrating in and out of the house. The sources of air infiltration are doors, windows, leaky siding, and cracks in the walls. Research proves that about 38% of air escapes through cracks in the walls, 20% out the basement, 17% through the walls, 16% through the windows, and 9% through other parts of the house. This leakage can be reduced by about 10% by caulking, weather stripping, the addition of automatic flue dampers, and the closure of fireplaces and openings in chimneys. When sealing a house, however, one must also keep an eye on dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide and radon that can build up in the house.
Another way to deal with the problem of heat loss and infiltration is to use a heat exchanger. A heat exchanger works by transferring heat from air leaving the house to air coming into the house by passing the two air currents very close to each other within an apparatus. The heat, by conduction, then transfers from one current to the other. This is effective in heating outside air before it enters the house and reducing the amount of energy needed to heat it up. This is also effective in adding moisture to the incoming air so a humidifier is not needed.
Water heaters also consume a lot (about 10-20%) of energy in a house. Water heaters function by using gas or electricity to heat a 30-50 gallon tank of water to a temperature of about 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit. This heated water is then distributed throughout the house. Water heaters are inefficient in that they loose energy through the piping distributing the water and require a constant expenditure of energy to maintain the water temperature.
There are various ways that one can conserve energy with water heating. The first and most obvious way is to reduce the amount of hot water that is used. The lower the amount of hot water used, the lower the amount of heating required. Additionally, lowering the heater’s thermostat to 120 degrees as opposed to 140 degrees provides enough hot water for normal use and reduces the amount of energy consumed. Another idea is to add insulation to the piping so heat is not lost when water is distributed through the pipes. Finally, electric igniters can be used to eliminate the energy wasted by a pilot light and a flue damper can be installed to decrease the amount of heat loss through the flue. By making these simple changes, one can save a lot of energy in the process of water heating.
Another consumer of energy in the household is air conditioning. Facts state that about 60% (57 million) of US households now have air conditioners. About 75% of new homes also have central air conditioners. Furthermore, in order to run all these air conditioners, it takes the output of about 7 large power plants. Therefore, you can see that air conditioners are a big contributor to energy consumption within the household.
There are various ways to make air conditioning more energy efficient. The first is to simply turn the air conditioner off when the house is not being used. This can easily be done by programming thermostat settings or turning off individual air conditioners before you leave the house. Another way is to keep doors and windows shut in the summer. The less hot air that enters the house, the less energy is needed for cooling. Another way to conserve energy is to by a more efficient air conditioner. All air conditioners are stamped with a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) that measures the seasonal cooling provided in Btu’s against the energy input in watt-hours for the average US climate. Therefore, air conditioners with a higher SEER rating run more efficiently and can therefore contribute to energy conservation. Most air conditioners now run with a SEER rating of around 8.5-9.5, up from the 6-8 ratings of some years ago.
Appliances also contribute greatly to energy consumption in the household. The biggest energy consumers in the appliance category are refrigerators and clothes dryers. While many people believe small appliances such as electric carving knives and electric toothbrushes to waste a lot of energy, this is untrue as they only use a negligible amount of energy. A good way to compare the energy usage of different appliances is to compare their kWh/yr consumed. Research proves refrigerators to use, on average, 1,300 kWh/yr, washers to use 1,080 kWh/yr, dryers to use 1,060 kWh/yr, and dishwasher to use 935 kWh/yr. For all people with water beds, they consume about 960 kWh/yr, making waterbeds another big contributor to energy consumption in the house. Many additional appliances such as TV’s,VCR’s, radios, clocks, and computers also drain a lot of energy. While they don’t use as much energy as some of the bigger appliances, they contribute to energy consumption by continuously draining energy even when they are turned off. TV’s for example drain continuous energy to maintain settings and keep tubes warm. VCR’s also drain energy in order to keep the remote control alert and keep the clock running. It has been proved that a typical house drains continuously about 50w of electric power even when all the switches are turned off. This leakage of energy also costs about $3 billion per year nation wide.
Refrigerator’s, even though more efficient nowadays, also consume a lot of energy. In 1997, it was recorded that refrigerators on average consumed around 690 kWh/yr and cost about $50 per year to operate. The projection for 2001 was that refrigerators would consume only 535kWh/yr, 30% lower than 1997 because of efficiency improvements. Refrigerators are therefore becoming more efficient as energy conservation becomes more of an issue. Clothes dryers also contribute to about 15% of electric energy consumed in the house. Energy can be saved through clothes drying by hanging clothes outside or venting air from your electric dryer back into the house to conserve heat.
One positive aspect of appliances is that most are now required to come with an energy guide attached to them. This energy guide shows the model’s energy usage, energy cost, and initial cost in relation to other more and less efficient models. With this energy guide, consumers have the ability to compare the total cost of buying more efficient models as opposed to less efficient models, hopefully convincing people that more efficient models save money.
Lighting is the last major contributor to energy consumption in the household. About 20% of electric energy in the US is used for lighting. Lighting has become more of a problem over the years as buildings have increased the level of lumens (light emitted per sq. ft.) in most buildings draining a greater amount of energy. Standard light levels in public schools have increased from 20 lumens/sq ft to 60 lumens/sq. ft. While this level is the suggested level for reading, most office buildings have increased lighting levels even greater to around 80-100 lumens/sq. ft. Office buildings also waste energy by heavily lighting corridors and stairways and using single switches that turn on an entire floor, creating a lot of unnecessary light use.
One way to conserve energy is to choose the right type of bulbs for your light fixtures. Fluorescent bulbs are more efficient in that they produce about 5 times more lumens per watt than incandescent lighting. Consequently, a 15 watt fluorescent bulb provides the same amount of light as a 75 w incandescent bulb. Fluorescent bulbs also last about ten times longer (10,000 hours) than incandescent light bulbs, making them a better economic choice. While some people have been known to complain about the light quality of fluorescent light bulbs, this problem has been fixed and is no longer a serious issue. Furthermore, while fluorescent lights save energy, they also save you money by lasting longer than other bulbs and lowering your energy costs by a noticeable amount.
Various additional steps can be taken to conserve energy with lighting. First, make sure to choose efficient light fixtures and to use effective lighting design so no light is wasted. Furthermore, use switches that allow lights to be individually controlled and allow lights to be dimmed. Finally, corridors and stairways should use a lower level of light and people should remember to turn off lights when they leave a room or use automatic controllers to turn off lights. By following these steps, a considerable amount of energy can be saved through household lighting.
One final way home owners can conserve energy is through recycling. Of course, it takes less energy to simply reuse a container than to form a new one. Recycling also reduces energy consumption because it takes only about 1/3 of the amount of energy to form a beverage can from recycled aluminum as it does from virgin aluminum. It also takes about 1/3 less energy to form steel products from scrap than from ore. Therefore, energy can be saved through the process of recycling.
Furthermore, to test the effectiveness of energy conservation in the household, a study was performed on a 1200 sq. ft. California house determining the energy conservation in relationship to the cost needed for energy conservative changes. The largest conservation obtained was with space heating, as the original 120 mil Btu/yr decreased to around only 35 mil Btu/yr (2/3 reduction), with an expenditure of $1600. This change was obtained by setting back thermostat settings, adding better insulation, caulking bad places in the house walls, and turning the pilot light off in the summer. A big change was also noticed with space cooling as a 2/3 reduction in energy consumption was obtained by buying a more efficient refrigerator and adding better insulation to the walls (Cost of about $500). Space heating also noticed a 50% reduction in energy consumption by the use of cold water laundry settings, a low-flow shower head, and a decrease in the water heater settings from 140 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Appliances and lighting also noticed reasonable changes through the use of a more efficient refrigerator, a gas range, a gas clothes-dryer, and fluorescent lights in the kitchen. The total result from the changes was a reduction of about 235 to 100 mil Btu/yr consumed by the house with an investment of about $2700. Further studies proved that if these steps were taken in houses across the nation, the 36 QBtu’s used nationally per year for buildings and appliances could be reduced to 15 QBtu’s used nationally per year with a cost of about 150 billion dollars. While this may not be a realistic plan for the near future, it effectively illustrates the possibility for energy consumption in American households.
In conclusion, there are many different energy consumers within the household as well as many different ways to conserve energy. While some changes may cause slight discomfort and may cost some money, most changes will not affect the standard of living nor cost any money when the total cost is calculated. Being energy conservative is simply about having the knowledge to know where you are wasting energy and the simple steps that need to be taken to prevent waste. With energy conservation becoming a bigger and bigger issue these days, it is a good idea for most homeowners to understand energy usage and conservation so they can effectively design their homes to save energy.
Brower, Micheal, and Warren Leon. The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Krausharr, Jack, and Robert Ristinen. Energy and the Environment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999.