Summary: Updated May 5, 2017therm small

We recommend very few changes in our Easy section. Each is cost effective, basic, and above all, easy! They make your life more comfortable and more convenient while significantly lowering your energy usage.

  1. Replace all light bulbs with LEDs. They come in all shapes and sizes so there are no excuses.
  2. Replace your thermostat with a smart, learning thermostat that is easy to use such as the Nest or Ecobee.
  3. Seal the easy stuff. The average older house has the equivalent of a 6 square foot opening when adding together all of the cracks, crevices, and let’s face it, big gaping holes. Seal those up and your heater and air conditioner don’t have to work nearly as hard. Use caulking for anything 1/4″ or less and spray foam for the larger stuff, like piping and wire penetrations.
  4. Have you already completed all the basics? Check out the intermediate level projects.

A note from… :
Our goal is to make things simple. We give you the main point in the first few sentences of a page or post so you don’t have to sift through paragraphs of rambling if you just wanted the summary. After that, we elaborate. Don’t have time for all the whys and what fors? Don’t care to read through the supporting research?  That’s not a problem. Just stick to the summary. On the other hand, for those of you who are curious and have the time, keep reading.


All the Facts:

According to the US Department of Energy, residential energy usage breaks down into the following percentages.

I would re-categorize in the following manor.

  1. Heating and AC: 54%
  2. Water Heating 18%
  3. Everything Else 28%


In Osram Sylvania’s 2016 lighting survey, 39% of respondents had never purchased an LED. An LED uses only 14% of the energy that a typical incandescent uses and lasts 26 times longer. Additionally, LEDs switch on instantly (unlike annoying CFLs which require a warm up period). With pricing on LEDs dropping like a rock, it’s become clear that CFLs were just a bridge technology. Earlier this year GE announced that they will be discontinuing manufacturing of CFLs in favor of manufacturing exclusively LEDs. What Sylvania’s survey did not cover was how many incandescents were still in use, but the 10% of home electricity use dedicated to lighting could continue dropping for years. Attacking this part of your energy usage is not only easy, it pays for itself.

LED-CFL table 06

According to the Department of Energy’s Residential Lighting End-Use Consumption Study, U.S. households averaged 1.6 hours of use per lamp (lamp being the technical term for bulb), 47.7 watts per lamp, and 67.4 lamps per household. That means the average household used 5.6 times more electricity than they would have if all lights were LEDs.

Space Heating and Air Conditioning:

ecobee3The biggest portion of most US energy bills (54%) is dedicated to keeping us from freezing or breaking a sweat. Just as with lighting, there’s a quick and easy way to address a healthy chuck of this usage by making a small change – a small change that simultaneously makes your life more comfortable and convenient. Enter the smart thermostat. My two favorites are the Nest and the Ecobee models. The smart thermostat is a monumental leap in technology over the programmable thermostat. Imagine you are in the 1980’s hectically punching in a series of commands on your VCR’s miniature buttons (millennials can ask their parents what it was like) to record a TV program. The VCR is the equivalent of the programmable thermostat.

Now instead of a VCR, picture a small digital box that reads your mind (mind reading being a step up from current streaming devices) and streams whatever TV show you want to see whenever you want to see it. That is the smart thermostat. According Navigant Research, third party studies of the Nest smart thermostat revealed that electricity use decreased “between 13.9% and 15% for cooling and 10% and 12% for heating loads.  For natural gas, the Vectren study confirmed an average annual reduction of 12.5%.” In many parts of the United States that energy savings will pay for the cost of the thermostat in under 2 years. If you are curious what the average home energy usage is in your area for heating and cooling, check out the EIAs research on a state by state basis. Even though all states are not listed, it gives a good overview: California in the west, New York in the New England area, Texas and Florida in the south, and Illinois in the Midwest, among others.

While the cost benefits are significant, the other benefits are an even bigger reason to pick up one of these devices. The smart thermostat achieves these results by constantly making adjustments to the temperature for you, both big and small. It learns these behaviors straight from the homeowner. When she turns the temperature up, that is a data point. The same when she turns the temperature down. Over the first two weeks the new device learns its owner’s preferences, then makes the adjustments on its own. How many times do you remember to turn the thermostat down before bed in the winter? No need to worry, the Nest or Ecobee will do that for you, even if you go to sleep at different times on different days. The same thing happens when you wake up. The temperature adjusts to your preferences just minutes before you normally get out of bed on each particular day of the week. Heading out for a long weekend? The device will realize there is no one around and decrease the heating or cooling significantly. Just one less thing you must remember before a trip. You can also access the controls from your smart phone anytime.

Really a smart thermostat is not very different from a dumb thermostat… if you could clone yourself… and your clone was always manning the temperature dial… and if it attended to its responsibilities with the pinpoint accuracy of a computer algorithm. I guess what I’m saying is smart thermostats are an even more impressive tech than cloning because let’s face it, that copy of you is never going to be as sharp as the original.

Sealing Up the Cracks:

Tightness of a building can be the single biggest factor contributing to energy loss. Home Innovation Research Labs has found that air leakage can account for up to 40% of a home’s heating and air conditioning load. Some of the worst offenders in terms of air leakage are:

Air Infiltration 031. Doors: cracks at doors and door frame perimeters
2. Windows: cracks at window and window frame perimeters
3. Mudsill: cracks between the foundation and wood framing
4. Upper Floor Ceiling: perimeters of lights, ducts, and other ceiling penetrations
5. Stack Effect: winter temps encourage air flow from the basement to the attic. Air gets sucked into the basement through exterior wall cracks. The air heats and expands, pushing air up through the house before finally exiting into the attic, losing energy in an endless cycle.

The standard unit for measuring air leakage is “cfm50.″ According to The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy by Dan Chiras, “A really good measurement is around 500 to 1,500 cfm50. The older houses we work on typically fall in the 6,500 to 8,500 cfm50 range.” Green Building Advisor’s Dr. Allison Bailes equates cfm50 to air leakage in a clear and easy to understand manor. “Each 1000 cfm50 is approximately equal to 1 square foot of hole.” By combining the information from Mr. Chiras and Dr. Bailes we find that the average older home has the equivalent of a 6.5 to 8.5 square foot hole in its wall that leaks air, and thus energy, year round. It isn’t surprising to learn that a large percentage of heating and cooling costs are due to air leaks alone.  

We have found that one of the best guides available on sealing and insulation was published by Energy Star in this step by step tutorial. It tells you about common locations of problems and how to fix them the right way. All of the fixes can be completed by a competent DIYer, but if you feel overwhelmed, get bids from a handful of good contractors. We always recommend getting at least 3 bids on on any project you hire out. There are very few renovation projects that have standardized rates from one contractor to the next.

The Next Step:

Once you finish all of the basics, check out the Intermediate level projects. Or if you would rather tackle it one piece at a time, review our home and car sections to determine what makes sense for you! If you live in an apartment, Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are likely your best option for decreasing your fossil fuel usage. We explain here how you can get up to 50% of your energy use from RECs for free.