Barbara asks a question that's on many people's minds as we head toward winter.
How will rising energy prices affect my budget and what can I do to limit the
damage? Let's begin by looking at water heaters and then follow-up with some
ideas on reducing energy bills.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) says that 14% of our home energy usage is for
heating water. By comparison, 44% is for heating and air conditioning. According
to the Rocky Mountain Institute over $15 billion is spent by Americans each year
to heat water.
Should Barbara consider switching away from natural gas? Probably not now or
ever. Generally it has been cheaper to heat water with gas than with electric.
In February, 2005 the Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha NE estimated that
an electric water heater cost 75% more to operate than a gas heater.
But that doesn't mean that Barbara can't reduce the amount of energy she uses to
heat water. The Rocky Mountain Institute claims energy saving techniques can
reduce the cost of heating water by two thirds. The four biggest savers are
using efficient showerheads, washing clothes in cold water, insulating the water
heater and lowering the water heater thermostat to 120F. Combining those would
reduce a bill by 1/3.
Two of the techniques don't require Barbara to spend any money. The other two
are inexpensive. Installing low-flow showerheads is a do-it-yourself type
project. Barbara can put a blanket of R-12 insulation around the water heater
herself. She should check the manufacturer, since some recommend against extra
Although a little more expensive, Barbara might also want to check out the cost
of installing a timer on her water heater.
Ok, what about her winter heating bills? Should she consider replacing a gas
furnace? Again, probably not.
What makes comparing furnaces hard is getting an apples to apples measurement.
DOE estimates that 1 kWh of electricity is worth 3.3 cubic feet of natural gas
in terms of generating heat. A common method of comparison translates everything
into how much energy is needed to produce a BTU. But even that still just
measures heat generation. It doesn't take into account how efficient the heat
delivery system is.
We won't get into the formula details. If you're seriously shopping for a new
furnace or water heater you'll need to get estimates based specifically on your
own home and lifestyle. That will be better than generic estimate anyway.
Even after the current increase in prices, gas is still cheaper than electric
for generating heat. And, electric prices will probably rise, too. About 20% of
electricity in the U.S. is generated from natural gas and petroleum. So an
increase in those prices will tend to raise electric costs, too.
That doesn't mean that Barbara is helpless. The DOE suggests an energy audit as
a good way to find out where you're using energy. Often your local power
provider will do an audit free of charge. Or you can do a simple audit yourself.
An internet search will uncover instructions.
In most cases, the best thing a homeowner can do is to make sure that they're
not wasting energy. The DOE says that if you total up all the leaks around
windows and doors it's the same as leaving a window wide open. Weather-stripping
is an easy, inexpensive way to eliminate those leaks. A $3 tube of caulking
could save you quite a bit.
The other key to winter heating, especially when there's only one person at
home, is to only heat the areas where you are. You don't need to heat the entire
Yes, a central furnace will be more efficient than a space heater. But, only if
they're heating the same sized area. In most cases the space heater only has to
heat one room, while the furnace will heat the entire residence. So even if the
space heater is less efficient, it will still use less energy than running your
Winter energy bills will always be a challenge. Especially when prices rise and
you live in a cold climate. Fortunately there are things that consumers can do
to reduce their bills short of replacing water heaters and furnaces.
Gary Foreman is a former purchasing manager who currently edits The Dollar
Stretcher website <www.TheDollarStretcher.com>
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