No matter what your motivations are — whether it’s climate change, saving money, or both — there are some things you can do to have your home start pulling its own weight.
I’ve got 5 areas I recommend looking into …
1) Energy audit
The number one thing every person in this room should look into is getting a professional home energy audit. Depending on where you live, it might cost you a few hundred dollars, but if you follow through on the recommended improvements they’ll give you, it’ll pay for itself pretty quickly. And depending on where you live, you may be able to get an audit for free.
I’m from Massachusetts, which has a program called MassSave. We can actually get a free assessment every year. Some of the things they’ll do is check your insulation level in your attic and even your exterior walls. In my case they drilled some small holes in a closet to check … and yes, they repaired the holes before they left. They’ll also perform what’s called a door blower test. They attach a giant cover over one of your exterior doors that has a giant fan … it creates a negative pressure inside of the house, so they can take pressure readings to rate your homes efficiency. It’s very useful as a before and after assessment once you’ve made the recommended improvements. The test also helps them track down very small leaks throughout the house.
Why is this important?
Heating and cooling our homes is more than 1/2 of our energy use. Making sure your home has a proper seal and good insulation can have a dramatic impact on your energy costs.
Be sure to check what incentives and rebates your state may provide because you may find that they’ll help with some of the recommended upgrades. When I had my audit done, the MassSave program ended up covering almost 75% of the cost of the insulation work. It ended up improving our home’s efficiency by about 33%. And they offer some pretty good rebates on high efficiency water heater systems, furnaces, and smart thermostats.
2) Smart thermostat
Which leads me to my number 2 recommendation: smart thermostats. This ties right into that 50+% of energy use again.
I don’t know how many of you remember the old school round thermostats that you had to adjust on your own. My grandparents had one of those for … basically forever, which I never understood as a kid. Remember … I’m the kid that took apart an egg timer.
Programmable thermostats, which I’m sure most of you have, are a big upgrade over those.
But a smart thermostat are a big upgrade over programmable thermostats. Two of the big names in smart thermostats are Nest and Ecobee, but there are lot of options available. While it may sound kind of nuts to spend $100 – $200 on a thermostat, you’d be surprised at how much they can save you in just a year or two.
Something like Nest uses machine learning to find patterns in how you like your home heated and cooled over time. It’s kind of like a virtual butler that will start to adjust to your patterns and anticipate what you need and when. And it can also understand when you’re not home and dial things back automatically.
I have an Ecobee, which doesn’t use machine learning like Nest, but builds on top of the programmable model. In addition to the main Ecobee on your wall, you place small remote thermometers around your house that also have motion sensors on them. The system know which rooms are occupied and which ones aren’t … and it will average the temperature readings from the occupied rooms and adjust the whole home to make sure you’re comfortable. And because of those motion sensors it also knows when you leave the house and can dial things back automatically.
None of us live according to a set programmed schedule, so systems like this can adjust on the fly … and it’s those micro adjustments that add up to significant savings.
Ecobee has reported users saving more than 23% on their heating and cooling bills.1 Nest did a study that showed 10-12% savings on heating and 15% savings on cooling, which comes in at around $131 – $145 in savings a year.2 So they can pay for themselves in just a year or two.
3) Whole home energy monitor
My third recommendation is finding out exactly how you’re using energy. The cheap option is to pick up a Kill-a-watt meter for about $25. You can plug a device into it and see exactly how much energy it uses over time. It’s a good entry point at trying to pin down devices or appliances that may be using more energy than you think.
But you can step up your game in two different ways. One is with things like smart outlets and switches as part of a smart home. Many of these smart devices include energy monitoring, so you can easily track how much energy whatever it’s controlling is using. I have some smart outlets controlling things like dehumidifiers and space heaters, so easy to see exactly how much energy we’re using to run them.
The more … comprehensive … approach is a whole home energy monitor like Curb or Sense. These get installed into your electrical box and allow you see exactly how much energy your entire house is using through a website or mobile app. I’m using Sense which is relatively easy to install, but you can have an electrician do it for you. It’s a little orange box with an wifi antenna and two clamps that go around the mains into your panel. If you have solar, you can also install two more clamps around the leads from the panels.
I can see exactly how much energy my house is using and producing through my solar panels at any time on my phone. And Sense also uses machine learning to detect specific energy patterns, which is uses to identify actual appliances in your home. It can take weeks and months for it to detect things, but it’s pretty impressive. It’s found my stove, dryer, washing machine, microwave … most of the major appliances are all in there. You can see how much energy and money each one is using and costing over time.
And knowledge is power. You’ll see things like devices running at times when nobody was home. Or computers using more energy in a sleep mode than you expected. I’ve changed how and when dehumidifiers are run to cut down usage. Same for some always on devices like computers and game consoles. With something like Sense you can set up goals within the app and it’ll show you how you’re tracking towards that goal. It will even send you email alerts if it notices a dramatic increase in energy use. This actually just happened to me a few weeks ago when we had a space heater running more than it needed to be. I got an email telling me that my energy use was 20% higher than normal. Looking at my usage statistics made it was easy to track down the reason. Very handy and can save you a lot of money over time.
4) Smart appliances – dryer, Smart lights, switches, and outlets
My fourth area I recommend looking into is getting further into smart home devices in general. Like I mentioned earlier with smart switches and outlets, you can build onto that with smart bulbs and appliances. And if you pick devices that can all tap into the same platform like Apple Homekit, Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Smarttthings, or Hubitat, you can have your home coordinate and work together to save you energy and money.
When my wife and I both leave home and the house is empty, my system, which is built on Hubitat, tells Ecobee to drop the temperature, makes sure all of the lights in the house are turned off, double checks that the front door is locked, that the garage door is down … and space heaters are turned off. You probably get the idea. It’s just like what I mentioned earlier about the smart thermostat by itself, but it’s extended out to pretty much everything in my home. It’s the automations that you setup in a smart home that can make a big difference. Your home can make micro adjustments automatically without you having to do anything … all based on what’s happening within it.
And if you’re like me and have decent, but dumb, appliances … like a high efficiency dryer … there are options to make those dumb devices smart for not much money. I have a device called SmartDry that I added to my dryer. It’s a tiny white box … about the size of a large pack of gum … and it attaches to the drum of the dryer with magnets. It can detect motion, temperature, and humidity. You set it up with your phone and tell it how dry you like your clothes. Anytime you run the dryer it automatically kicks on when it detects the drum spinning. And it lets you know when you clothes have reached the dryness level you’ve set. It’s a lot more accurate than my dryer is at the same task. I’ve found that we can sometimes stop the dryer 10 – 15 minutes early compared to what the dryer thinks needs to be done. Washers and dryers account for about 13% of our energy use, so again … another way to cut down energy use and save money.
5) Solar panels – yes, they work in northern climates too
And for #5 … and my final, but probably favorite recommendation … solar panels. I put this one at number five because it may not make sense for every situation. And it’s also the most expensive option on my list. But it’s kind of hard to argue with having a power plant on your roof. You don’t get more energy independent than that.
I’ve published several videos on my experience with solar living in a northern climate, which I’d recommend you check out if you have any interest in solar. I go into some pretty good detail on the costs and numbers I’ve been seeing over time. But I’ll keep it short here … don’t worry … my main message is that you’d be surprised where solar can work. It’s not just a viable option for areas like here in Texas, California, or Florida. Even in areas like New England, or the great white north in Canada, solar can make a lot of sense. Now, in Texas you’d probably be able to get a setup that can cover nearly 100% of your use year round. In the Boston area, that’s not going to happen during the winter … but you can do very, very well across the year.
Ideally you want a southern facing roof or plot of land that you can install solar on. In my case my house is facing east to west, so not ideal. You also want unobstructed view of the sky throughout the day, so no trees or shade on the roof. Again, my house is not ideal. Our neighbors have very tall trees that start casting shade across my western facing roof in the mid to late afternoon.
But here’s the thing. Solar panel efficiency has gotten very good. I installed panels on both sides of my roof … and I went with the highest efficiency panels I could to try to make up for the less than ideal setup. In the end I’m seeing around 60 – 65% of my yearly energy needs getting covered by my solar panels. The system will have paid itself off in about 8 -9 years. Sounds like a long time, but these panels have a 25 year warranty and will last well beyond that.
Does that mean it will work for you? It depends on your energy use, energy prices, and your specific situation, but I think you may be surprised. It’s absolutely worth considering and looking into. And if you’re interested, I’d recommend checking a company called Energysage. It’s a great resource for researching solar and getting quotes in your area. I used it to find my installer and highly recommend it.
So my first four recommendations will help you and your home cut back on how much energy you use. And the last recommendation will actually make you energy. Put them all together and you might be able to achieve true energy independence. Smart homes aren’t just silly parlor tricks about turning your lights red by calling out to a voice assistant on your phone. Smart homes are far more than that … and can help you save you time, energy, and money in the long run.