Do You Discuss Your Energy Bills? You Probably Should.

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CC BY 2.0. Mark Turnauckas Photography

How often do you talk with neighbors or friends about their energy bills?

I ask this because I live in a weird house.

Bear with me.

It was built in 1936, with half the downstairs being a separate apartment, and the upstairs surrounded by roof space and very little insulation. There are (or were) large pockets of roof space with no access. And while someone, at some point, has blown in what looks like cellulose insulation, that cellulose has since shifted, moved or disappeared in several places—leaving large parts of the ceilings pretty much uninsulated, hard to access. And definitely not air sealed.

We asked around about adding insulation when we moved in, but several contractors we talked to said it probably wasn't worth it given the relative hassle of accessing much of the roof. This was compounded by the lack of access to trades people who had a focus on the big picture, as opposed to their specific piece of the pie. (HVAC folks don't seem to do insulation. Insulation people don't want to mess with carpentry. Carpenters don't focus on energy. etc.)

While the upstairs gets uncomfortably hot in the summertime, we live in a region where electricity is relatively cheap—so I can't say I had sticker shock once the energy bills started arriving. (Our bills are averaged out over the year—so the summer spike was hidden.) I figured between all the LEDs, energy efficient appliances, green energy credits/offsets and my slightly obsessive focus on switching out lights, I was probably doing what I could. It's an old house, so it's probably going to be a bit of an energy hog. And I held on to the idea of going solar—but that didn't really work out.

End of story, right?

It was only once I started receiving a home energy report from Duke Energy which showed me not just my consumption, but more importantly, how it compares to my neighbors that I realized just how badly the building envelope was performing. I'm leaving out the actual units of electricity because, even with our two plug-in cars, the numbers are embarrassing.

home energy report graph

© Sami Grover

Receiving these reports led me to finally ask around with some friends and neighbors: "How much are you paying for your energy use?"

And the troubling result of those discussions redoubled my resolve to finally solve this weird home's weird problems.

That task is a work in progress. And I'll be reporting on it as we move forward. But we've finally gained access to most of the roof space, and we have a game plan forming that includes spray foam insulation (the less chemical alternatives didn't pan out for our house, and even Lloyd assured me it is sometimes the best option.) We'll also be working on air sealing, some reworking of ducts, and I'll soon be testing out the new, lower cost Nest Thermostat E upstairs, and how well it works with my existing Nest downstairs (but that will be yet another story). For now, the point I'm trying to make is two fold, and pretty simple:

1) It's probably a good idea to ask friends and neighbors—in similar houses—how much they spend on their energy. If my experience is typical, it's not a conversation that many people have. And it would help us all to make this a more central topic of discussion. That's especially true in regions where power prices are low enough that many people don't pay close attention to their bills.
2) Utilities can help a lot by providing clear, helpful data that not only analyzes energy consumption—but compares it to what other homes of similar size/age/type are consuming.

There are, of course, other ways to make energy more visible. I'm in the process, for example, of setting up an extended test/review of the Sense whole house energy monitor—which plugs into your breaker box and identifies devices based on their unique energy footprint. But more on that once it's properly up and running.

For now, the lessons are these: you can't manage what you don't measure. And measurements mean nothing if you don't have meaningful baselines to compare them to.

So let's talk.