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 energyupgradeMV.org 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.