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Bailey Family Earns Bragging Rights

November 02, 2011
November/December 2011
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Our attempt to improve the energy efficiency of our home began in 2008, after the electrical portion of our utility bill soared over $400. We had long been resigned to a steep energy bill, in part because we have a 40-foot solar-heated swimming pool, which has to be filtered at least four or five hours per day even in winter. But this is still a lot of money! It was particularly galling that because of our high level of consumption, we were paying 39 per kilowatt-hour. But what could we do? Where was all the electricity going? There was no way to tell.

tr_Bailey_0379When we redid the kitchen, we replaced all the appliances. The new refrigerator, an LG Energy Star model, has an estimated utility cost of only $43 per year. (David Bailey)

tr_Bailey_0367To our horror, we found that two computers in the den were using ridiculous amounts of electricity. (David Bailey)

Two developments led the way to saving electricity — and cash. First, in 2008, electrical costs at the Berkeley Lab's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center were rising steeply. The lab was considering installing inexpensive electric power meters to get a handle on electricity use. I thought one of these meters might be useful to monitor my family's use of electricity. And second, at about the same time, our local utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) began to install SmartMeters. These meters allow customers to view hour-by-hour usage on the Internet, and thus identify potential trouble spots.

So in February 2009, we purchased a $22 Kill A Watt power meter from Amazon.com, and started measuring the amount of electricity used by our appliances and electronic devices. To our horror, we found that two computers in the den were using ridiculous amounts of electricity — my wife's PC was using 250 watts around the clock, even when no one was using it, and a Mac workstation I had at home was using 225 watts around the clock. So we soon replaced my wife's PC with a new energy-efficient laptop, and I shut off the Mac except when I really needed to use it. We found that this change alone saved us roughly $100 per month.

Another unpleasant surprise uncovered by our Kill A Watt meter was the refrigerator. We found that it was consuming about 2.4 kWh per day, which was costing us roughly $30 per month. As it turned out, in 2010 we had extensive water damage in our kitchen, when a rat ate the outlet hose of our dishwasher. So when we redid the kitchen, we replaced all the appliances. The new refrigerator, an LG Energy Star model, has an estimated utility cost of only $43 per year (it actually costs us roughly $5 per month, because our utility rate is higher than that assumed in the Energy Star estimate).

Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution

More than 80% of U.S. homes subscribe to some form of pay-television service.

Transforming those signals into shows, movies, and sports on the screen currently depends on approximately 160 million set-top boxes, nearly all of which are owned and installed by the cable, satellite, phone, or other service provider. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where I work, and Ecos Consulting partnered to better understand how much energy these devices use and how they might be used more efficiently. What we found was startling: In 2010, set-top boxes in the United States consumed approximately 27,000,000,000 kWh of electricity, which is equivalent to the annual output of nine average (500 MW) coal-fired power plants. The electricity required to operate all U.S. boxes is equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, results in 16 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, and costs households more than $3 billion each year. Fortunately, there is great potential for improving the efficiency and reducing the cost of operating these electronics that so many viewers rely upon.

Here are the key findings of the NRDC and Ecos study:

There are approximately 160 million set-top boxes installed in U.S. homes. Almost all of these boxes are owned and installed by the service provider. Today's set-top boxes operate at near full power even when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show. As a nation, we spend $2 billion each year to power these boxes when they are not being actively used.

Digital video recorders (DVRs) are growing in popularity and frequently replace set-top boxes without recording capability. DVRs typically use around 40% more energy per year than their non-DVR counterparts.

Better-designed pay-TV set-top boxes could reduce the energy use of the already-installed base of boxes by 30 - 50% by 2020. The big opportunities include: (a) shifting to whole-home solutions that include a main box connected to the primary TV with either TVs specially designed to access the video content stored on the main box or low-power thin client boxes that serve the same function, and (b) having the boxes automatically power down to much lower power levels when not in use (for example, in the middle of the night, or while users are at work).

— Noah Horowitz
Noah Horowitz is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and director of the Center for Energy Efficiency, San Francisco, California.

One more surprise uncovered by our Kill A Watt meter was our cable/digital video recorder (DVR) box. These devices consume a lot of electricity even when they are switched off (see "Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution"). On or off, ours was consuming 28 watts around the clock. So we plugged all our video equipment, including our new LED flat-screen TV and the cable/DVR box, into a power strip and shut the power strip off when we weren't using the equipment. Now when we switch the equipment on, it takes 30 seconds or so before we can watch TV, but we are willing to make this onerous sacrifice for the sake of energy efficiency (wink).

The Bailey's Monthly Electric Bill
The Bailey's Monthly Electric BillFigure 1. We cut the electrical portion of our PG&E bill from about $400 per month three years ago to only about $50 per month today.

We had long suspected that our swimming pool filter pump was costing us plenty, but we couldn't measure its usage with the Kill A Watt meter (which works only for items with a standard electrical plug). However, when PG&E installed a SmartMeter on our property, we were able to see how much power the pump was using each day, and concluded that it was costing us roughly $100 per month. So after consulting with our pool service company, we replaced it with a new ultraefficient, multispeed pump. This now costs us only about $25 per month.

One more change was to replace all 38 ceiling can lights in our house with LED can fixtures (manufactured by Cree, Incorporated, and now available at Home Depot). These are a nice true white color, are dimmable, and what's more, screw into standard can sockets. These were relatively expensive, but we should recoup the cost in five years.

The bottom line is that we have cut the electrical portion of our PG&E bill from about $400 per month three years ago to only about $50 per month today — plus or minus some blips here and there due to unusual events such as family get-togethers or remodel crews (see Figure 1).

>> learn more

For more information on the NRDC and Ecos study, please contact Noah Horowitz at nhorowitz@nrdc.org, or on the web at www.switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/nhorowitz.

Here is the complete list, in chronological order, of the changes we made in our house:

  • February 2, 2009. Purchased a Kill A Watt power meter; started measuring usage.
  • February 10, 2009. Turned off the Mac workstation when not in use.
  • May 9, 2009. Purchased a new PC laptop.
  • March 31, 2010. Replaced the washer/dryer with new models.
  • July 2, 2010. Replaced the pool pump with new multispeed model.
  • December 13, 2010. Replaced kitchen ceiling lighting with LED cans, as part of kitchen remodel.
  • December 15, 2010. Replaced TV with 40-inch LED backlit model; installed Comcast digital TV service.
  • December 22, 2010. Installed power strip to turn off Comcast DVR box and other TV equipment when not in use.
  • January 7, 2011. Replaced den ceiling lighting with LED cans.
  • January 19, 2011. Replaced dishwasher, microwave, and stove/oven (the latter with an induction cooktop), as part of kitchen remodel.
  • February 3, 2011. Replaced refrigerator, as part of kitchen remodel.
  • April 23, 2011. Replaced ceiling lighting in remaining rooms with LED cans.

David H. Bailey is the chief technologist of the Computational Research Department at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He does research in the area of large-scale scientific computing and computational mathematics.

This short article was submitted to Home Energy by David H. Bailey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in response to Senior Executive Editor Alan Meier's recent editorial (July/Aug '11, p. 2), which featured the home of another building scientist and frequent Home Energy contributor, Danny Parker of the Florida Solar Energy Center. Come on, you readers out there, don't let the scientists hog all the spotlight! Write to JPGunshinan@homeenergy.org and brag about your energy-saving retrofit measures. Or be really brave and tell us about your failures. All data are good!

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