Why so many energy saving tips are so bad

Patti Page says, put on a sweater!
CC BY 2.0 The best energy saving advice on TreeHugger? Put on a sweater like Patti Page

Over the years, TreeHugger has been full of energy-saving tips, most of which apply to single family houses and many of which have very little real impact. It has become clear that where you live and how you get around has a far more profound impact on your energy consumption, so when I did my update 9 key ways to green your home for winter Most of them had to do with picking the right place to live in the first place, and the best advice I could give is to put on a sweater.

Over at Green Building Advisor, Martin Holladay writes a thoroughly depressing post where he looks at all the stupid energy saving tips he found on respectable websites from utilities, magazines, governments and people who should generally know better. He suggests that many of these things are distractions, writing:

After the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in 1945, the U.S. government admitted that many of the war-time campaigns urging Americans to gather rags and steel cans for recycling were launched to give citizens a psychological boost rather than because of shortages of rags or steel. Many energy-saving tips have this same flavor: they are intended to keep homeowners busy — too busy to read the meter or pay attention to their actual energy bills.

There are some points that I disagree with Martin (what else is new?)- he downplays the importance of caulking and sealing windows by pointing out that the big leaks are in in the basement or the attic. That doesn't make it bad advice; it is cheap and one of the few things that just about anyone can do.

bathroom windowLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

However, a recent blower test and thermal scan of my own home showed that while my carefully caulked window is just leaking a bit, huge amounts of air are leaking in around the frame, I could feel it blowing in. Caulking around the window casing would have been a lot more effective.

Martin finds many different categories of misguided information:

  • Stupid tips,(fill your fridge with bottles of water);
  • Expensive tips that are not cost effective (change your windows)
  • Contradictory tips, (Close off heating registers in unused rooms — no, wait: leave them open.)
  • Wild exaggerations (caulking will not save you 30% of your energy bill)
  • Dangerous and counterproductive tips (add a fireplace? "This may be one of the worst energy-saving tips ever devised." However it is also from a list where energy expert Allison Bailes commented "Are you kidding me?! This is one of the worst lists of energy-saving tips I’ve ever seen."
  • Tips that don't belong (Install bamboo counters)
  • Bizarre tips (use kids and dogs as thermal cameras).

It is a sobering list, considering how many of these we have shown on TreeHugger over the years. Fortunately he concludes with an excellent tip from the Telegraph newspaper: Cure your fish with alcohol instead of smoking it. And have a glass of schnapps.

Do it all in the right order, as per the pyramid of conservation.

What works:

All is not lost. In a sidebar, Martin lists things that do work including sealing, swapping bulbs, storm windows and setback thermostats. He doesn't mention sweaters.

Why so many energy saving tips are so bad
Martin Holladay produces a sobering list. No wonder TreeHugger's best energy saving idea remains: put on a sweater.

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