My Energy Story: Measuring and Reducing Home Energy Usage

LED lights with our dining room hutchAs I mentioned in a previous blog post, my partner and I are relatively new homeowners; we’ve lived in our 1914 story-and-a-half South Minneapolis bungalow for about a year and a half.  Given that we’ve both worked in the energy efficiency field, we’re pretty cognizant of our energy usage, and try our best to walk the talk when it comes to conservation.  But, as the Minnesota Historical Society knows well, older buildings pose a number of challenges for achieving efficiency, as well as a number of opportunities. We love the original woodwork in our house, the built-in dining room buffet, and the colonnade archway that separates the living room from the dining room.  The house tells a story of the growth and development of South Minneapolis in the early 20th century, of the old-growth lumber that was used in the construction (that would be quite expensive and hard to find today), and the high quality, solidly built homes that characterized the aesthetic of that era.  

Along with the artistic detailing and solid construction come some of the quirks of dealing with an old building: original, single-pane windows; un-insulated (until last fall) walls and knee walls; an aging boiler (with our beloved iron radiators); and some remodeling projects over the years that didn’t have energy efficiency in mind as the primary goal.  One of our first projects as homeowners was to get an energy assessment to evaluate the efficiency of the house and make recommendations for improvements.  We started with the Home Energy Squad- a program I’d recommend to any eligible Xcel Energy and/or CenterPoint Energy customers- whose services include a basic assessment of home energy usage and install a number of basic materials including a programmable thermostat,energy efficient light bulbs, and weather stripping.  

Blowing in wall insulation

Based on their visit, we discovered that there was virtually no wall insulation in the house, and rectifying that was their top recommendation for improvement.  We worked with Center for Energy and Environment, who staffs the Minneapolis Home Energy Squad program, to find a contractor and get a 0% interest loan to do the insulation work.  We’ve also been installing LED bulbs around our home- especially in the dimmable and halogen fixtures- that are harder to find fluorescent replacements for.  We also found a Cyber Monday deal on an Energy Star front-load washing machine that I swear actually makes me enjoy doing laundry!

One of the ongoing challenges for us has been making the behavior changes that help save energy at home.  I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy a long and luxurious shower every now and then, and I don’t always remember to turn the lights off when I leave a room.  We’ve got a clothesline in the backyard and a couple of wooden indoor drying racks that we use to minimize the amount we use the dryer.  The programmable thermostat set to go down to 60 while we’re out of the house or sleeping, and goes up to 67 when we’re there.  That means we dress in layers on the coldest winter days, and rely on some cozy slippers to keep our feet warm.  It doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing comfort and convenience, but it does mean making intentional choices or designs in our home to encourage sustainable behaviors.

Home Energy Report from CenterPoint Energy

All those improvements are great to brag about on their own, but any energy nerd worthy of  their title would want to know- what are the savings?  In the energy industry, there’s a popular saying about benchmarking- “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”  This adage, also used in the management field, emphasizes the importance of tracking performance, so you’ll know if things are getting better or worse.  Energy benchmarking enables comparison, goal and priority setting, and competition around energy usage.  The first thing most people look at when they get their monthly energy bill is the total cost, but utility companies are starting to incorporate more comparison data for customers to put the total usage in context and provide motivation to reduce overall consumption.  As you can see from the Home Energy Report we received from CenterPoint Energy in January, we’re using slightly less energy than our most efficient neighbors, but we still used more this year than we did last year at this time, which may be due to chillier winter.  I love that utilities have started providing these reports to customers, and the ways it helps make energy usage more tangible and visible.

I share this personal experience and example of my own home, because it’s been a real learning experience.  Having dealt with some of the challenges of an older home gives me an appreciation of how much has been done at the Historical Society sites, but also how much more can be done.  An ongoing hurdle in any energy conservation efforts is encouraging behavior change.  It’s something I’ve struggled with in my own home, and that we are working to come up with new and creative ways to address here at MHS.  Please share any suggestions you have for ways we could encourage energy saving habits, or examples of things you’re already doing at work to save energy!