5 easy (really!) things you can do to put a dent in energy bills.
You know that 10 or 20 pounds that you just can’t seem to lose? You do the right thing — eat kale or log time on the StairMaster — but the weight clings. You feel powerless.
It’s like that with our energy bills, too. Eighty-nine percent of us think we’re not using as much energy as we did five years ago, and almost one-half of us think our homes are energy efficient. But 59% also say our energy bills have gone up, according to consumer research by the Shelton Group, a marketing and advertising agency that specializes in energy-efficiency issues.
Call that the Snackwell’s effect, says Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton. Basically, we’re saying, “I bought these CFLs so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I bought a high-efficiency washer and dryer because I want to do more laundry without paying more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.”
Unfortunately, that disconnect has led to defeat. We feel victimized by our energy bills and powerless to the point where we’re making fewer energy-efficient improvements. In fact, Shelton’s research shows consumers made only 2.6 improvements in 2012 compared with 4.6 in 2010.
Until the day we all get energy dashboards in our home, we’re here to help you understandwhy your energy costs are where they are and how you can take back your energy bills.
Hint: You need to do four or five energy-efficient things to see a difference; one or two won’t cut it. But — good news! — they don’t cost much to do.
Why Do We Feel Victimized?
We don’t know what we’re buying. Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis for which we have no idea how much we pay until a month later, says Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a research and policy-making nonprofit focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency.
Energy costs are going up. Inflation is mainly to blame. Your bills are projected to rise on average 2% per year through 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the research arm of the energy department. Expect about 3.4% per year if the economy gets sluggish.
Other trends pushing up our energy usage:
A growing population means more homes.
New homes are getting bigger, though our families are getting smaller, according to the Census Bureau.
We’re plugging in more devices (computers, smart phones, tablets, X-boxes, plasma TVs) per household — and not unplugging them. (More on behavior later.)
In fact, for the first time, energy use for appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting accounts for more than heating and cooling, according to EIA.
Still, overall consumption is pretty flat through 2040, thanks in part to:
Population migration to dryer, warmer climates in the South and West.
People living in multifamily rather than single-family situations.
We make assumptions.
Assumption #1. Unless a home is old — more than 30 years — we figure it was built to code, which requires a certain amount of energy efficiency. But building codes change pretty regularly, so even newer homes benefit from improvements, says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research and insights with the Shelton Group.
Assumption #2. We think utilities are out to get us: They’ll jack up prices no matter what we do. Shelton’s research shows consumers blame utilities above oil companies and the government. But keep this mind: To get rate changes, utilities must make a formal case to public utility commissions. They’re also on the hook to pay for such things as:
Infrastructure upgrades put off for years
Equipment repairs after bouts of nutty weather
Another reason rates seem stuck is because utilities bundle fuel, service, and delivery fees together.
Assumption #3. Our expectations for energy savings are out of whack. When the Shelton Group asked consumers what they would expect to recoup if they invested $4,000 in energy-efficient home improvements, they said about 75% to 80%.
Sorry, unless you invest in some kind of renewable energy source like geothermal and solar, you won’t see that kind of savings. If you do all the right things (we’ll tell you about the best five later), you could expect a 20% to 30% reduction, Head says, particularly if you don’t succumb to the Snackwell’s effect.
What does 30% translate into? $660 in savings per year or $55 per month, based on the average household energy spend of $2,200 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Assumption #4. Many of us don’t know how to make the biggest impact on our homes. That’s why we sometimes replace our windows first, when that should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements, Shelton says.
There’s nothing wrong with investing in new windows. They feel sturdier; look pretty; increase the value of your home; feel safer than old, crooked windows; and, yes, offer energy savings you can feel (no more draft).
But if you spend $9,000 to $12,000 on windows and save 7% to 15% on your energy bill, according to DOE data, when you could have spent around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing, and saved 10% to 20% on your energy bill, you made the wrong choice if your only reason for the project was reducing energy costs.
The real reasons for getting new windows are “emotional rather than financial,” Shelton says.
The 5 Things You Should Do to Show Your Bills Who’s Boss
1. Caulk and seal air leaks. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and knock yourself out over a weekend, sealing penetrations into your home from:
Savings: Up to $220 per year, says EPA
2. Hire an HVAC contractor to take a hard look at all your ductwork — are there any ducts leaking that need to be resealed? — and give you an HVAC tune-up.
Savings: Up to $330 per year, for duct sealing and tune up, says DOE
3. Program your thermostat. Shelton found that 40% of consumers in her survey admit to not programming their thermostat to energy-saving settings. She thinks it’s even higher.
Savings: Up to $180 per year, says EPA
4. Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs or CFLs. We suggest LEDs, which have fewer issues than CFLs (namely, no mercury), and although expensive are coming down in price. We’ve even seen a $10 model.
Savings: $75 per year by replacing your five most frequently-used bulbs with Energy Star-rated models, says EPA.
5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. Set your tank heater to 120 degrees — not the 140 degrees most are set to out of the box. Dropping 20 degrees could save 6% to 10% on your annual water heating costs, which are 14% to 18% of your utility bills. Also wrap an older water heater and the hot water pipes in insulating material to save on heat loss.
Savings: $18 to $39 per year
Important note: Resist the urge to total these numbers for an annual savings. The estimated savings for each product or activity can’t be summed because of “interactive effects,” says DOE. If you first replace your central AC with a more efficient one, saving, say, 15% on energy consumption, and then seal ducts, you wouldn’t save as much total energy on duct sealing as you would have if you had first sealed them. There’s just less energy to save at that point.
But these practices can help you achieve the goal of shaving 20% to 30% of your annual bill ($440 to $660).
Energy Savings is Addictive. What Else Can We Do?
If you want to go further and spend more, especially if you’re not planning to sell your home soon:
Add insulation. Anything you can do to shore up your building envelope is good.
If major appliances like your HVAC and water heater are nearing the end of their useful life, research energy-efficient replacements and keep the info where you’ll remember. Otherwise, you’ll make a reactive purchase when the unit finally breaks.
Contact your utility about rebates for investing in improvements. Or visit DSIRE, a database of federal, state, local, and utility rebates searchable by state. Energy Star has a discount and rebate finder, too.
A Final Word: Oh, Behave!
Remember the Snackwell’s effect? If your behavior — unplugging chargeable devices from the socket when they’re done charging; putting computers, TVs, and media on smart strips and turning them off at once; reprogramming your thermostat at daylight savings time — doesn’t support your improvements, you’re letting energy, an invisible product, win.
Elfant Wissahickon welcomes REALTORS (front row, kneeling)Michael Zimney and Martha Hill(second row, left to right)Joannie Topper, Robert Stoller , Jill Doster, Lori Hershey, Kaia Letham(third row, left to right)Andon George, William Collins, Paul Walsh, Jr. and Don Pickneyto our sales force of professionals at our Chestnut Hill and Rittenhouse Square locations.
Just another weekend? Not if you take advantage with one or more of these 5 great projects you can easily pull off for under $300.
Most of the cost of these DIY weekend projects is in the materials. The labor — that’s you — is free. All you need now are the hours. But, hey, you’ve got two full days — plenty of time to be a superhero weekend warrior and grab some R&R.
Project #1: Add a Garden Arbor Entry
The setup: Install an eye-catching portal to your garden with a freestanding arbor. It’ll look great at the end of a garden path or framing a grassy area between planting beds.
Specs and cost: Garden arbors can be priced up to thousands of dollars, but you can find nice-looking kits in redwood, cedar, and vinyl at your local home improvement or garden center for $200 to $300. Typical sizes are about 7 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide. You’ll have to assemble the kit yourself.
Tools: Screwdriver; cordless drill/driver; hammer; tape measure. Kits come pre-cut and pre-drilled for easy assembly, and usually include screws. If fasteners aren’t included, check the materials list before you leave the store.
Time: 3 to 5 hours
Project #2: Install a Window Awning
The setup: Summer is super, but too much sunlight from south- and west-facing windows can heat up your interiors and make your AC work overtime. Beat that heat and save energyby using an awning to stop harsh sunlight before it enters your house.
Specs and cost: Residential awnings come in many sizes and colors. Some are plastic or aluminum, but most are made with weatherproof fabrics. They’re engineered for wind resistance, and some are retractable. A 4-foot-wide awning with a 2.5-foot projection is $150 to $250.
Tools: Cordless drill/driver; adjustable wrench; tape measure; level. You can install an awning on any siding surface, but you’ll need a hammer drill to drill holes in brick. To prevent leaks, fill any drilled holes with silicone sealant before you install screws and bolts.
Time: 3 to 4 hours
Project #3: Screen Off Your Air Conditioner from View
The setup: Air conditioning is great, but air conditioner condensers are ugly. Up your curb appeal quotient by hiding your AC condenser or heat pump unit with a simple screen.
Specs and costs: An AC screen is typically three-sided, about 40 inches high, and freestanding — you’ll want to be able to move it easily when it comes time to service your HVAC. For about $100, you can make a screen yourself using weather-resistant cedar or pressure-treated wood to build three frames, and filling each frame with plastic or pressure-treated lattice.
Or, buy pre-made fencing panels. A 38-inch-by-38-inch plastic fencing panel is about $50.
Time: Build it yourself in four to six hours. Install pre-made fencing in one to two hours.
Project #4: Add Garage Storage
The setup: Shopping for garage storage solutions is definitely a kid-in-the-candy-store experience. There are so many cool shelves, hooks, and hangers available that you’ll need to prioritize your needs. Take stock of long-handled landscape tools, bikes, paint supplies, ladders, and odd ducks, such as that kayak. Measure your available space so you’ll have a rough idea of where everything goes.
Specs and cost: Set your under-$300 budget, grab a cart, and get shopping. Many storage systems are made to be hung on drywall, but hooks and heavy items should be fastened directly to studs. Use a stud finder ($20) to locate solid framing.
If your garage is unfinished, add strips of wood horizontally across studs so you’ll have something to fasten your storage goodies to. An 8-foot-long 2-by-4 is about $2.50.
Tools: Cordless drill/driver; hammer; level; measuring tape; screws and nails.
Time: This is a simple project, but not a fast one. Figure six to 10 hours to get everything where you want it, plus shopping. But, oh the fun in putting everything in its place!
If you want to do something really inexpensive, DIY a simple overhead bin system. All you need is plywood, plastic bins, some tools, and a weekend. See how it’s done:
Project #5: Edging Your Garden
The setup: Edging is a great way to define your planting beds, corral garden mulch, and to separate your lawn from your garden or patio.
Specs and cost: Wood and metal edging looks like tiny fencing; they’re 4 to 6 inches high. Some include spikes that hold the edging in position; other types must be partially buried. Cost is $1 to $5 per foot.
Plastic edging can be molded and colored to mimic brick, wood, and stone. About $20 for 10 feet.
Concrete edging blocks are smooth, or textured to resemble stone. $15 to $25 for 10 feet.
Real stone edging is installed flush with the surrounding grade in a shallow trench on a bed of sand, so digging is required. Stone is sold by the ton and prices vary by region. You’ll need about one-third of a ton of flagstone to make an 8-inch-wide edging 50 feet long, costing $150 to $200.
Tools: Shovel; wheelbarrow; tin snips (for cutting plastic edging); work gloves.
Time: Pre-made edging will take two to three hours for 50 feet; stone will take six to 10 hours.
Here’s how to get the bathroom of your dreams without making your budget a nightmare.
You dream about a bathroom that’s high on comfort and personal style, but you also want materials, fixtures, and amenities with lasting value. Wake up! You can have both.
A midrange bathroom remodel is a solid investment, according to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. A bath remodel with a national median cost of $26,000 will recover about 58% of those costs when it’s time to sell your home.
Regardless of payback potential, you’ll probably be glad you went ahead and updated your bathroom. Homeowners polled for the “Report” gave their bathroom renovation a Joy Score of 9.3 — a rating based on those who said they were happy or satisfied with their project, with 10 being the highest rating and 1 the lowest.
1. Stick to a Plan
A bathroom remodel is no place for improvisation. Before ripping out the first tile, think hard about how you will use the space, what materials and fixtures you want, and how much you’re willing to spend.
The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) recommends spending up to six months evaluating and planning before beginning work. That way, you have a roadmap that will guide decisions, even the ones made under remodeling stress. Once work has begun — a process that averages two to three months — resist changing your mind. Work stoppages and alterations add costs. Some contractors include clauses in their contracts that specify premium prices for changing original plans.
If planning isn’t your strong suit, hire a designer. In addition to adding style and efficiency, a professional designer makes sure contractors and installers are scheduled in an orderly fashion. A pro charges $100 to $200 per hour, and spends 10 to 30 hours on a bathroom project.
2. Keep the Same Footprint
You can afford that Italian tile you love if you can live with the total square footage you already have.
Keeping the same footprint, and locating new plumbing fixtures near existing plumbing pipes, saves demolition and reconstruction dollars. You’ll also cut down on the dust and debris that make remodeling so hard to live with.
Make the most of the space you have. Glass doors on showers and tubs open up the area. A pedestal sink takes up less room than a vanity. If you miss the storage, replace a mirror with a deep medicine cabinet.
3. Make Lighting a Priority
Multiple shower heads and radiant heat floors are fabulous adds to a bathroom remodel. But few items make a bathroom more satisfying than lighting designed for everyday grooming. You can install lighting for a fraction of the cost of pricier amenities.
Well-designed bathroom task lighting surrounds vanity mirrors and eliminates shadows on faces: You look better already. The scheme includes two ceiling- or soffit-mounted fixtures, and side fixtures or sconces distributed vertically across 24 inches (to account for people of various heights). Four-bulb lighting fixtures work well for side lighting.
Today, shopping for bulbs means paying attention to lumens, the amount of light you get from a bulb — i.e., brightness. For these bathroom task areas, the Lighting Research Center recommends:
Toilet: 45 lumens
Sink: 450 lumens
Vanity: 1,680 lumens
4. Clear the Air
Bathroom ventilation systems may be out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind during a bathroom remodel.
Bathroom ventilation is essential for removing excess humidity that fogs mirrors, makes bathroom floors slippery, and contributes to the growth of mildew and mold. Controlling mold and humidity is especially important for maintaining healthy indoor air quality and protecting the value of your home — mold remediationis expensive, and excess humidity can damage cabinets and painted finishes.
A bathroom vent and water closet fan should exhaust air to the outside — not simply to the space between ceiling joists. Better models have whisper-quiet exhaust fans and humidity-controlled switches that activate when a sensor detects excess moisture in the air.
5. Think Storage
Bathroom storage is a challenge: By the time you’ve installed the toilet, shower, and sink, there’s often little space left to store towels, toilet paper, and hair and body products. Here are some ways to find storage in hidden places.
Think vertically: Upper wall space in a bathroom is often underused. Freestanding, multi-tiered shelf units designed to fit over toilet tanks turn unused wall area into found storage. Spaces between wall studs create attractive and useful niches for holding soaps and toiletries. Install shelves over towel bars to use blank wall space.
Think moveable: Inexpensive woven baskets set on the floor are stylish towel holders. A floor-stand coat rack holds wet towels, bath robes, and clothes.
Think utility: Adding a slide-out tray to vanity cabinet compartments provides full access to stored items and prevents lesser-used items from being lost or forgotten.
6. Contribute Sweat Equity
Shave labor costs by doing some work yourself. Tell your contractor which projects you’ll handle, so there are no misunderstandings later.
Some easy DIY projects:
Install window and baseboard trim; save $250.
Paint walls and trim, 200 square feet; save $200.
Install toilet; save $150.
Install towel bars and shelves; save $20 each.
7. Choose Low-Cost Design for High Visual Impact
A “soft scheme” adds visual zest to your bathroom, but doesn’t create a one-of-a-kind look that might scare away future buyers.
Soft schemes employ neutral colors for permanent fixtures and surfaces, then add pizzazz with items that are easily changed, such as shower curtains, window treatments, towels, throw rugs, and wall colors. These relatively low-cost decorative touches provide tons of personality but are easy to redo whenever you want.
A new study examines which outdoor projects DIYers would love to do . . . but probably won’t.
When it comes to picking outdoor DIY projects, we found it interesting that homeowners opt for functionality over form — and even finances, according to a new survey of U.S. homeowners. That’s music to our pragmatic ears.
By a wide margin, homeowners say they prefer functional projects (57%) over those that just look good (28.3%) or have financial value (14.7%).
But just because DIYers desire a project, that doesn’t mean they’re going to strap on a tool belt and actually do it. The survey also reveals the most-wanted projects a DIYer is least likely to do: High-skill/high-effort projects, like building a deck or privacy fence, probably will never make it off the DIYer’s wish list.
The most-desirable projects promise to make outdoor time more fun; but the ones homeowners probably will do are the easiest, like planting a garden or spreading around some landscaping pebbles.
Take a look at these numbers crunched by the Home Projects Council, a group of home improvement experts that sponsored the online survey of 1,278 homeowners planning outdoor home improvement projects in 2013.
Top-5 Desirable Outdoor Projects
1. Plant a garden (49.1%): Anyone with a shovel and some seeds can try this project, though it’ll take some experience to grow temperamental veggies, like tomatoes.
2. Landscaping with pebbles, stones, or rocks (28.3%): Attractive landscaping adds value to your home by boosting curb appeal. And it doesn’t take much effort to spread pea gravel in garden paths to add color and texture.
Tip: Edge your path to keep the gravel from spreading.
3. Build a deck (22.8%): A deck is a great way to create outdoor living space, especially when your yard is sloped. Deck maintenance is easy, too: A coat of sealer will keep it looking good.
4. Create a fire or BBQ pit (20.5%): This retro project evokes 1950s dads flipping burgers over a handmade brick pit. Today, you’re more likely to install a gas grill in the pit, which makes the stainless steel seem less industrial and more homey.
5. Build a patio or walkway with pavers or bricks (19.2%): These stone hardscapes are elegant, functional, and long-lasting.
Top 5 Projects DIYers Wouldn’t Do on a Bet
Hey, a guy can dream, and then hire a pro to:
Build an outdoor kitchen.
Pour concrete slabs for patios, steps, or sidewalks.
Install a garden pond.
Resurface a concrete driveway, sidewalk, or patio.
Want summer comfort but hate the AC? Follow these tips on how to keep your house cool without frosty air conditioning.
You don’t have to switch on the air conditioner to get a big chill this summer. These tips will help you keep your house cool without AC, which will save energy (and avoid AC wars with your family).
Block that Sun!
When sunlight enters your house, it turns into heat. You’ll keep your house cooler if you reduce solar heat gain by keeping sunlight out.
Close the drapes: Line them with light-colored fabric that reflects the sun, and close them during the hottest part of the day. Let them pillow onto the floor to block air movement.
Add awnings: Install them on south- and west-facing windows to reduce solar heat gain by up to 77%, says the U.S. Department of Energy. Make your own by tacking up sheets outside your windows and draping the ends over a railing or lawn chair.
Install shutters: Interior and exterior shutters not only reduce heat gain and loss, but they also add security and protect against bad weather. Interior shutters with adjustable slats let you control how much sun you let in.
Apply high-reflectivity window film: Install energy-saving window films on east- and west-facing windows, which will keep you cool in summer, but let in warming sun in the winter. Mirror-like films are more effective than colored transparent films.
Here’s more information about energy-efficient window coverings.
Open Those Windows
Be sure to open windows when the outside temperature is lower than the inside. Cool air helps lower the temps of everything — walls, floors, furniture — that will absorb heat as temps rise, helping inside air say cooler longer.
To create cross-ventilation, open windows on opposite sides of the house. Good ventilation helps reduce VOCs and prevents mold.
Fire Up Fans
Portable fans: At night, place fans in open windows to move cool air. In the day, put fans where you feel their cooling breezes (moving air evaporates perspiration and lowers your body temperature). To get extra cool, place glasses or bowls of ice water in front of fans, which will chill the moving air.
Ceiling fans: For maximum cooling effect, make sure ceiling fans spin in the direction that pushes air down, rather than sucks it up. Be sure to turn off fans when you’re not in the room, because fan motors give off heat, too.
Whole house fans: A whole-house fan ($1,000 to $1,600, including install) exhausts hot inside air out through roof vents. Make sure your windows are open when you run a whole-house fan.
Power Down Appliances
You’ll save money and reduce heat output by turning off appliances you’re not using, particularly your computer and television. Powering down multiple appliances is easier if you connect them to the same power strip.
Don’t use heat- and steam-generating appliances — ranges, ovens, washers, dryers — during the hottest part of the day. In fact, take advantage of the heat by drying clothes outside on a line.
Plant Trees and Vines
These green house-coolers shade your home’s exterior and keep sunlight out of windows. Plant them by west-facing walls, where the sun is strongest.
Deciduous trees, which leaf out in spring and drop leaves in fall, are best because they provide shade in summer, then let in sun when temperatures drop in autumn. Select trees that are native to your area, which have a better chance of surviving. When planting, determine the height, canopy width, and root spread of the mature tree and plant accordingly.
Climbing vines, such as ivy and Virginia creeper, also are good outside insulators. To prevent vine rootlets or tendrils from compromising your siding, grow them on trellises or wires about 6 inches away from the house.
Speaking of shade, here are smart, inexpensive ideas for shading your patio.
Want more tips for staying cool this summer? Substitute CFL and LED bulbs for hotter incandescent lights.
Also, try insulating your garage door to prevent heat buildup.
Elfant Wissahickon c0-founder Bob Elfant (left) with new president, Paul Walsh.
Elfant Wissahickon Realtors named its newest president, managing partner Paul Walsh, to replace firm co-founder president Bob Elfant. Asher Kahn, sales manager of the Rittenhouse Square office, has also been named partner.
Walsh, a Germantown native, joined Elfant Wissahickon EWR 20 years ago, became a partner in 2004 and was made managing partner of the organization in 2007. Walsh was instrumental in the growth of EWR from about 45 agents to nearly 100 agents.
“He has provided unparalleled leadership, is universally respected by his peers, and beloved by our agents and staff. There was no question in the owner’s minds that he represent our company as president,” Elfant said.
Although Elfant will remain a founding partner, he stepped down from the presidency in order to spend more time with his family.
EWR moved its headquarters to Chestnut Hill in 2010. Through Walsh’s efforts, the company has become part of the fabric of the Avenue.
Walsh most recently served as president of the Chestnut Hill Business Association and is currently vice president of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District.
“I have large shoes to fill in following Bob,” Walsh said. “I am confident that our company, with our amazing agents and staff, will continue to grow as one of the top real estate firms in the country.
Asher Kahn, formerly the sales manager of the Rittenhouse Square office, has been credited with growing the firm’s presence in center city and is currently working to expand their services into New Jersey. He joins Louise D’Alessandro, Larry DiFranco, Bob Elfant and Paul Walsh as an EWR partner.
“Asher brings 15 years of varied real estate experience and has had a significant impact on penetration of the center city marketplace,” Elfant said. “He provides wonderful support and training to our agents, companywide. I am thrilled to have Asher on board.
“It is very special to love what you do and also love the people you are surrounded with, and I am truly grateful to have that at Elfant Wissahickon,” Kahn said.