Small Steps Toward Energy Efficiency (and Away From Moving Anxiety)

Reader Contribution by Staff
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This is my internal refrain: “I don’t know how to do this.”

This is my beloved friend Eric’s response, “Yet. You do not know how to do this yet. You are the alpha and the omega.”

What he means is there is no right or wrong way to do this move. Yet, for me, there has been. I’ve been hesitant to do anything that might reveal I am an amateur or in any way mar my 84-year-old house. Paint a wall? Better leave that to the experts. Hang a painting on plaster and lathe walls? Seriously? I just learned what plaster and lathe are — how am I possibly equipped to drill into the wall? What are all those different drill bits for? And why is every color in my house some variation of red or brown?

For some strange reason, I feel like I should know how to drill, hammer and select perfect colors — and I feel mighty ashamed that I don’t. Fortunately, I have Eric in my life to cut that refrain and remind me that learning is incremental, and I am progressing just fine. There is, however, a reason for my anxiety. Moving is one of the top 10 stressors in our lives, ranking third after death and divorce.

Yesterday, Eric accompanied me (i.e. made me go) get supplies. I try to frequent locally owned, independent businesses because buying local is a key part of being a responsible consumer. It keeps money in our local economies and supports our friends and neighbors. The prices are sometimes (not always) a little higher because a small business doesn’t have the aggregate purchasing power of a big box store that’s buying items for hundreds or thousands of retail outlets, but that small investment goes well beyond the few extra cents we might pay for a bolt or screw.

This particular excursion was to the big box store. We entered the store somewhere in the lumber section. I felt overwhelmed by the dizzying number of planks, fixtures and unfamiliar gadgets and desperately wanted to leave. But, of course, Eric was doing all of this incredible work to help me so I had to pretend I was into it. He looked for fasteners for the plaster and lathe and some of the energy efficiency products on my “to buy” list while I veered off and tried to do the same. Somewhere during hour two of our big box field trip, I started to settle in and — dare I say — get excited about what I was doing. I picked up items I knew I would eventually need (ahem, rake) and almost kind of started to believe I could pull this whole homeowner thing off.

A recent acquaintance, Charlotte, described this uncomfortable transition into a new home as the “getting to know you” phase, analogous to what happens when starting a new job or meeting a new community of people. It takes a while to settle in. So while I am settling, I have decided to slow down a bit and scale back to micro-movements.

In that spirit, here are five things to make your home more energy efficient that you can complete in less than fifteen minutes. These tasks are strategic and touch upon the most impactful things you can do to reduce your energy consumption and limit carbon dioxide emissions. (I’ll talk more about this in my next post.) The timing doesn’t include buying the items — all of which should be readily available at your local hardware store. (I challenge you to best me: skip the mega-store and seek out your local, independent hardware shop.)

Stuff to buy:

1) Draft doorstopper. Mine was overpriced at $15–if you are crafty, chuck my timing and make your own draft stop.

2) Tape measure (about $4) and scissors (about $2).

3) Hot water insulation blanket (and a knife with which to trim the blanket). Mine cost $20. Look for the blanket with the highest R-value.

4) Duct tape (about $6).

5) LED or compact florescent light bulbs (a six-pack of CFLs cost me $10 on sale). LEDs are pricey upfront but can last up to a decade and provide the greatest energy efficiency. If you are going with CFLs (that can fit into most standard outlets), opt for the soft white hue, that is, unless you like the high school cafeteria cast of bright white fluorescents.

Stuff to do:

1) Start the clock.

2) Make sealing all air leaks a priority. Doors and windows are two big areas to tackle. In the interest of time, I started with a draft stop for my front door.  It took two minutes to measure the width of my door, trim the foam, and slide the stopper underneath the door.  I spent an extra thirty seconds reveling in the newfound warmth around the door.

3) Locate your hot water heater and then find the temperature dial on your unit (see the photo). For each 10º F reduction in water temperature, you can save between 3 and 5 percent in energy costs so turn that sucker down to 120º F.

4) Unfurl your hot water heater insulation blanket. If it’s lined with fiberglass be careful and avoid skin contact. (I hate fiberglass. That is why I put people-friendly and eco-friendly cellulose insulation in my attic.) If you have a friend nearby, ask her to help you position and tape the blanket around the heater. Make sure the blanket is nice and snug and cut around any faucets, controls, vents, and pipes. Adding insulation won’t win your hot water heater any beauty contests (see the photo) but it can reduce heat loss by 25 to 45 percent and will save you around 4 to 9 percent in water heating costs. That’s pretty.

5) The clock is ticking! Grab a chair or stepladder and change any incandescent light bulbs for CFLs or LEDs. I know you have heard it (and I have said it) a million times, so do it already. Lighting accounts for close to 20 percent of an average home’s electricity bill.  This will save you money and time changing bulbs.

6) In the remaining seconds you have left, turn down your thermostat. You will save roughly 1 percent on your heating bill for each degree your thermostat is lowered. Your best bet is to install a programmable thermostat that will do the work for you but that doesn’t fit in our fifteen-minute challenge.

Congrats! These small changes are the first steps to a cleaner, greener life. Know that strategic small acts can reap great results, whether it’s changing a light bulb or, like Eric, being there for a friend in a time of need.

Embracing the micro-movements — and feeling gratitude for shelter and support,


P.S. I am not the world’s greatest tweeter but I do drop whatever house gems I find on Twitter @simransethi.

Photo by Jessica Sain-Baird