Energy Audit Can Help Cut Chills, Bills

Bitter cold January temperatures have homeowners cranking up thermostats and sweating the higher heating bills that are on the way. MidAmerican Energy, for example, set a record Monday for natural gas usage.

Energy experts point to ways to find energy savings, and MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy boosted some rebates for home energy-efficiency efforts, effective Jan. 1. Where to start? A home energy audit.

Home energy auditorCory Amos moves deftly through Jackie and Mark Wellman's home, first hitting the basement to check on the age and efficiency of the West Des Moines couple's furnace.

He finds a furnace that was likely installed in 2001, making it 92 percent efficient. It's not the maximum 95 percent efficient furnace Amos and other home energy auditors love to see, but still a good heating system, says Amos, a contractor who works for MidAmerican Energy.

Then he makes a sweep of the basement: no air moving through the windows, all the foundation walls are finished but one. He'll later tell Jackie Wellman the family can install insulation that looks a little like a blanket on the exposed wall to keep the cold out.

A walk through the home's main floor reveals little light around outside doors, and relatively new, snug windows. But a check of insulation in the attic, accessed through the garage, reveals a slim 6 inches where Amos would like to find 18 inches. And he'll later replace a few energy-inefficient incandescent bulbs with CFL and an LED light in the bathroom and bedroom. The compact florescent and light emitting diode lights use a fraction of the energy and give off better light, Amos says.

He'll also install a low-flow shower head that uses less water and less energy to warm it.

The home audit swag also will include a programmable thermostat that Amos will install. He talks with Wellman about what temperatures are comfortable for the couple when they're home, and whether they can crank it down while they sleep or are away.

The bitter cold experienced last week aside, it's an energy myth that it takes more energy to heat up a cooler home than leaving it set at a balmy 68-70 degrees all day, says Amos and others. Experts recommend pushing thermostats down 10 degrees at night or while at work, if possible.

Shaving 10 percent here, 20 percent there can cut energy bills. It adds up, says Amos, who walks through where the Wellmans can invest time and money to make their home more energy efficient. Jackie Wellman says it's an environmental issue for the couple.

We try to do what we can, she says.

Three things you can do to cut your energy bills
1. Insulate, insulate, insulate 
Homes built in the 1990s or earlier will likely need more insulation, said Justin Foss, spokesman for Alliant Energy. MidAmerican recommends 18 inches, or an R-value of 49. Adding insulation can save up to 10 percent on annual energy bills, says the utility. 

Jackie Wellman learned that her West Des Moines home had about 6 inches of insulation. Boosting it to 18 inches would cost about $2,100, and she and her husband, Mark, likely would qualify for the maximum $1,000 rebate, says Cory Amos, a home energy auditor. The insulation would take 13 years to pay for itself. 

2. Swap out bulbs

Lighting accounts for about 20 percent of a consumer's energy bill, MidAmerican Energy says. And incandescent bulbs are energy hogs. Although they cost more to buy, CFLs use about 75 percent less energy and LEDs, up to 80 percent less energy. 

MidAmerican and Alliant are working with 350 retailers to discount the cost of CFL and LED bulbs. It has cut the cost of an LED to about $10. It should save about $40 over the life of the bulb. 

3. Rethink everyday practices 

Small actions like turning down the thermostat at night, turning off lights or turning off unused appliances can save consumers money, says Foss and others. Amos installs a smart power strip during each home energy audit so consumers can eliminate some phantom energy use. Unplugging gaming systems, TV and other entertainment equipment can save $174 a year, according to Touchstone Energy Cooperative, which has several partners in Iowa. Find the savings from different actions at http://www.togetherwesave.com.