Several weeks into social distancing and working from home, many people in Portland are starting to see an impact of the pandemic that they might not have expected: Increased energy bills. Between multiple electronic devices, extra loads of laundry for those who have launched into spring cleaning mode, and using heat during hours when everyone would normally be away from the house, those who have been hit with high energy bills this month may be wondering, “Is there a better way?”
First off, avoid blaming yourself for this situation. For many years, building codes in the United States have required stricter efficiency standards for commercial buildings than for residential homes. So while your typical newer office building or school might have triple-glazed windows, all-LED lighting, and tankless hot water systems, most homes in Portland were built before 1980 and many lack basic efficiency measures.
The Home Energy Score program attempts to close the efficiency gap between commercial and residential buildings by incentivizing Portland home owners and sellers to make improvements to reduce energy use. What assessors and homeowners across Portland have discovered is that homes here tend to score lower than the national average. The bottom line is, many homeowners in Portland can save money on their monthly energy bills by taking some simple steps to improve the home’s efficiency.
Why improving Your Home Energy Score is not the same as turning down the thermostat
If scoring dozens of homes in Portland has taught us anything, it’s that a home that doesn’t use energy efficiently is always going to cost more, no matter what actions homeowners take to reduce their consumption in traditional ways. This includes turning down the heat, turning off the lights and unplugging appliances when not in use. That’s why the Home Energy Score was designed to assess the physical attributes of a home that effect energy use, not the behavior of whoever happens to be living there.
That said, there are some tips we’d like to share to reduce your energy use right now:
- Try to use less hot water. The typical hot water heater uses about as much energy as all your other appliances combined. To reign it in, turn down the temperature and encourage household members to use cold water when possible. The CDC has found that cold water cleans hands just as effectively as warm water. And most laundry will come out just as clean in a cold-water wash as a warm- or hot-water one.
- Air-dry clothes when possible, or at least large items like rugs and blankets. Dry loads consecutively to take advantage of residual heat in the dryer.
- Check for blocked heating vents. Putting a couch or other piece of furniture over the vent will not stop air from coming out — it just means the HVAC system has to work harder! Also check the intake ducts. They’re usually across the room from the vents, and if they are blocked, it could also compromise your system’s performance.
Three Ways to Improve Home Energy Score AND Save $ on Energy Bills Next Month
Addressing the root causes of inefficiency is what the Home Energy Score was created to do. Performing these steps will not only help you feel more comfortable in your home, but they will also help you save money on energy bills and be better prepared to sell your home down the road.
1. Seal gaps and cracks in the basement
According to the US Department of Energy, nearly a third of the typical home energy bill goes toward heating or cooling the home. A home that leaks air can cause the heat pump to kick on more often than it should in the winter months, and is difficult to keep cool in the summer.
So how can Portland homeowners get ahead of the issue and seal up their home? According to Energy Star, most air leaks occur where we don’t see them — behind knee walls as well as in the attic and the basement of the home. Wiring and plumbing holes, recessed lights and flues can also be places where air is either coming in or leaving the house.
The easiest place to start sealing up the home might be in an unfinished basement. Often there is a gap between the top of the foundation and the house framing, or along rim joists. Use the smoke from a stick of incense, or a lit candle, to detect air movement on a cold morning. You’ll see warm air from the basement moving toward the outside.
Use spray or rigid foam to insulate, then seal these areas. It’s an easy DIY project with potentially big payoffs. For more on air sealing, check out our blog post.
2. Seal and/or insulate the attic.
The DOE estimates that homeowners can save between 10-50% by insulating the attic. It makes sense that while cold air can infiltrate the basement and cause the HVAC system to work harder, the air that is then heated can easily escape through the attic if it’s not sealed and insulated.
We’ve created a comprehensive guide to insulating your attic, but if that’s a big project to take on between homeschooling the kids and working from home, we understand! Fortunately, there are smaller steps you can take as a homeowner to improve efficiency in the attic, which will help prepare you for insulating down the road.
- Seal around attic windows and other openings. Use weatherstripping and/or expanding spray foam.
- Seal other openings. Use fire-blocking caulk or spray foam around pipes, wires, exhaust fans and ducts. For chimneys and flues, ensure that metal flashing is sealed tightly where they enter and exit the attic space.
- Check out can lights. Recessed lighting creates a gap between the ceiling and the attic. Though many are preinsulated and will not cause air leaks to the attic, some are not. If they’re not, you can add your own insulation — but some lights require a clearance gap.
- Insulate the attic hatch. This is the most obvious “hole” between the home and the attic, so make sure it is as tight as an exterior door. Use caulk and weatherstripping, and add insulation to the inside of the hatch. Here’s a good how-to from Green Building Advisor.
- Check for rebates and incentives. When you are ready to take on the insulation part of this project, Energy Trust of Oregon typically offers cash back on attic insulation.
3. Order a home energy score report.
The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for reducing a home’s energy bill — every Portland dwelling is different! That’s why it can be so helpful to get a Home Energy Score report. It shows you how your home compares to others, breaks down your carbon footprint, and offers a customized list of improvements to boost energy efficiency.
Call us to find out how we’re maintaining health and safety while performing this vital service for Portland homeowners.