Jim Lett knew his house was leaking money, especially during winter. Of course, he couldn't actually see heat slipping out of wiring conduits, exhaust fans, the attic. But he could feel the pain in his wallet as sure as the draftiness that compelled him to turn up his thermostat.
So Lett called Renu Building & Energy Solutions in Orefield for help, and Renu performed an energy audit. A high-powered fan was mounted in the front door of Lett's house, and an infrared camera was used to trace air flow. In the end, Lett was presented with a report dozens of pages long detailing various ways his circa 1950s house could be made 21st Century energy efficient.
"We save financially. It's good for the environment. And it's more comfortable for us, living in the home," he said.
If the topic is money-saving home improvement projects, odds are the conversation soon turns to solar panels. They're sexy in a high-tech sort of way, like a pair of mirror sunglasses on your roof. And during peak summer daylight, they can send the dial on your electric meter spinning backward. But let's start our discussion with the measures most experts agree give you the biggest bang for your buck.
"We would always recommend conservation first, before the big ticket items," Renu co-owner Brian Baker said.
For most homeowners, the attic is the best place to start. It offers the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, because heat rises and therefore most easily escapes an enclosed space if provided an exit above.
Usually, additional insulation will go a long way toward fixing the problem. That's because insulation technology has evolved since many homes in the Lehigh Valley were built, as have construction standards. Anthony Hyde of Saving Green Energy Audits in Easton said the typical attic should have at least 12 inches of insulation, but many older homes throughout the region have attics with as little as 2 inches.
No less important, however, is a separate attic fix many homeowners overlook: sealing cracks and gaps. "It's unbelievable how much air leaks out of people's houses," Hyde said.
Bringing an old attic up to code is not rocket science. But it is tough, dirty work. It usually means handling itchy insulation and applying messy caulk in dark, cramped spaces. If that's not something you are able or willing to do, auditors such as Baker and Hyde can refer you to a professional.
A list of certified energy auditors can be found on the website of PPL Electric Utilities. Cost varies depending on house size and audit type. A simple walk-through costs as little as $50 after PPL rebates. A more detailed inspection could run as high as $1,000, though up to $250 in rebates is available through PPL.
In addition to attics, auditors look for energy-saving opportunities in other areas, particularly home heating and lighting.
Many people are abandoning home-heating oil, which has nearly doubled in price over the past several years, for less expensive natural gas, which has actually dropped in price over the same time frame. The price gap is so wide that people are investing thousands of dollars to switch heat sources, expecting to recoup the investment through fuel savings in just a few years.
The typical heating oil customer who lives in the Northeast is expected to spend $2,535 on fuel this winter, up 67.5 percent from five years ago, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average natural gas customer in the Northeast, meanwhile, will spend $1,062 on fuel, down 5.9 percent from five years ago.
Another alternative to heating oil is coal. A ton of coal, which can cost about $180 in the coal region, provides the same amount of heat as 180 gallons of heating oil, which would cost $630. Coal systems, however, typically require frequent attention — and manual labor.
Yet another possibility is an indirect water heater, such as the one Lett installed in his house. Basically, it is an insulated water tank that keeps hot water hot enough that a home's oil burner need not fire up so often.
By now, the benefits of compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs over traditional incandescent bulbs have been well-publicized in recent years. Switching to CFLs can, for the average household, cut electricity consumption by more than half, saving up to $1,500 over the life of the bulbs.