One household's eye-opening energy audit

City's "Energy Upgrade" program makes free house calls

A pair of detectives went to work in a Mountain View home this week, probing for the secrets behind its energy bill.

The energy audit was paid for the by the city's Energy Upgrade program. In effect until the end of the year, it allows households with PG&E Smart Meters to have free energy audits of their homes, whether they rent or own them. It is the "the only program of its kind in the entire country," according to Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Steve Attinger.

He said that many participants find it to be "a very enlightening process."

While Doug Folden, his wife and their two sons use less energy than most comparable households, there were still a lot of things in their St. Francis Acres home that waste energy. To begin the search, Blaine Tehaney, energy specialist for city contractor Acterra, went through the home and plugged various devices into a hand-held "watt meter" to see what was causing the home to use over 100 watts of electricity when "idle" -- periods when everything is turned off.

The Foldens' stereo equipment, a VCR, a kitchen clock radio and an electric garage door opener were among the items collectively drawing enough electricity -- while turned off -- to power more than a few light bulbs. The biggest offender was an old stereo receiver and CD player which together drank 18 watts -- costing as much as $45 a year -- while switched off. The older TV was the least wasteful, using only 1.5 watts while off. Worse are plasma flat screen TVs, which can draw 25 watts, while modern LED and LCDs use around one watt while switched off, Tehaney says.

The solution was to either unplug those "vampire" devices or plug them into special power strips which would interrupt power to them until a "master device" is turned on, such as the TV, or a radio signal is received from a remote wall switch. Tehaney gave the Foldens such a power strip for free. It was part of a package of energy-saving items worth about $50 offered free to each household, including CFL light bulbs, gaskets to plug drafts in doors and power outlets, electrical outlet timers, clotheslines and low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators.

Tehaney suggested using outlet timers for many common tasks, such as charging laptop batteries or keeping electric blankets warm only until you've fallen asleep. An iPhone battery, for example, will continue to draw 2.5 watts even once fully charged, Tehaney said.

More investigation found that the refrigerator was a few degrees colder than necessary (Tehaney also found that the thermometer inside was also a few degrees off), and the hot water heater was 6 degrees hotter than recommended, both adding to their energy bill. Because the water heater is in a cabinet facing the home's side-yard, Tahaney said it was especially important to insulate the water pipes going to and from the heater, which only costs a few dollars for the do-it-yourselfer. Water heaters made after 2000 don't need insulating blankets as they are already insulated, he said.

Meanwhile, Acterra volunteer Deepti Nanawati went to work on replacing the home's light bulbs with six free CFLs. She tested faucets and showerheads for high flow rates, and found doors and power outlet covers that were allowing cold air into the house, which has significantly higher heating costs because of a lack of insulation in the walls. Nanawati installed foam gaskets under several power outlet covers and added some weather-stripping to the kitchen door, fixing a draft. She also recommended a curtain over the door's windows, which she said could increase temperatures in the vicinity by 5 to 10 degrees during winter.

"If you need to heat or cool anything, it's cheaper to do it with gas," Tehaney said. Electric heaters are a good example of this problem, as many use 800 to 1500 watts, easily doubling a home's monthly energy bill if left on unchecked. Tehaney recommended that the Foldens use a gas stove when they remodel their kitchen, while the home's electric clothes dryer is another area where they could save some money.

Tehaney said he aims to save most households several hundred dollars a year. Occasionally he is able to save much more. He once found a garden fountain drawing 1000 watts all day, every day, which was put on a timer. But usually he finds lots of smaller sources of energy waste that add up.

Folden, a business executive, appeared a bit nervous about having his home scrutinized, and admitted that the family had been "too lazy" too turn certain things off, such as their seldom-used printer and fax machine.

"A lot of people do that, don't feel bad," Tehaney told him.

In the end, Folden was relieved to hear that his energy use was below average. "Put that in your article," he said.

Once he finished scouring the home, Tehaney showed the couple PG&E's new website, which allows them to track their energy usage hour by hour, compare their home's use to the average for similar homes, and see if they may be saving enough electricity to cross into one of PG&E's less expensive rate tiers. The Foldens were curious to know if they should try not to use energy during certain hours of the day, and Tehaney's answer was that PG&E's default pricing structure doesn't account for when energy is used, though using energy during peak daytime hours increases the chance that "dirty" power plants will have to be fired up to meet demand.

Tehaney also showed the Foldens how to read the home's Smart meter for real-time electricity use, which read 0.102 kilowatts, or 100 watts, as the home "idled" during the audit.

For those interested in a free energy audit, there are still plenty of spots before the city reaches its limit of 1,500 residents. Only 250 residents have signed up since the program began last April. Visit or call Mountain View's environmental sustainability coordinator, Steve Attinger, at (650) 903-6602.

Those looking to conduct their own audit will find PG&E's new "my energy" website feature helpful, and a watt meter like the one mentioned in this story can be borrowed from the Mountain View Library.


Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 1, 2012 at 9:58 am

About half the CFLs I have bought are dead within 1-2 years even with minimal use. And they are not cheap. I've started using LEDs with good results so far, but they are very expensive.

Like this comment
Posted by Fed-up
a resident of North Whisman
on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Environmental Sustainability Coordinator?---I'll bet we would save a lot of taxpayer money if we eliminated these unnecessary bureaucratic positions. The public sector could easily fill this position.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce Karney
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I did an audit like this of our home several years ago. Some of the most eye-opening findings:

* A 2002-vintage "tower" PC used about 50 watts, nearly as much as our 15 cubic foot refrigerator.
* Our Comcast DVR was drawing about 40 watts and ran continuously. A newer version of the DVR which we got in 2010 when the old one failed uses about half as much energy.
* A HEPA air filter uses 70-130 watts depending on fan speed.
* Our seldom-used treadmill used 9 watts even when off.
* Electric space-heaters that we put in the bedroom in winter really caused our usage and bills to go up. We no longer use them.

Like this comment
Posted by @ Fed-Up
a resident of Whisman Station
on Mar 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm

The "public sector" has certainly had it's opportunity to fill this position...and yet, it never got done. But, somehow with this "unnecessary bureaucratic position" things are getting done. Amazing! Does not sound so unnecessary to me.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Coot
a resident of Rex Manor
on Mar 2, 2012 at 2:31 pm

The CFLs and other voltage sensitive appliances will burn out quickly given a diet of the abysmal quality electric service provided by PG&E. The service is rarely within specs and any and all complaints are answered from Mumbai by a non-English speaker using a "trouble-shooting tree" template to handle the call. I spent a week attempting to report a failing transformer with accompanying wild fluctuations in voltage and frequency, to no avail. After it blew, the linesman replacing it admitted, "We don't do any maintenance until it fails completely." I have all of our computers and LAN, including TV and ancillaries on UPCs. The UPCs often signal non-spec input, sometimes several times in one evening. I have lived in Third World countries that offered better electrical service.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack Perkins
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm

To:Fed Up

There you go again revealing your progressive religious beliefs
and in this case showing your Government-Will-Save-Us naiveté and your "I know best" lack of common sense and your oh-so-typical herd opinions that aren't even your original thinking because you only believe
What the progressive doctrine tells you.

You'd jump at the chance to be in charge of a re-education camp.

Thank you for being so typical

Like this comment
Posted by Dear Jack,
a resident of Whisman Station
on Mar 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Did you actually READ the article?

Are you actually a real person? Your answer is a bit crazy! You may wish to read it as well (maybe next time, before you hit submit)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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