Energy use in our home: The BEFORE picture

Energy use – it’s hard to see and hard to control, but it’s something I want to drastically improve. My public utility company, Seattle City Light, keeps sending me notices telling me that our home uses more electricity than the average home in our area of the same age and size. How embarrassing! Clearly, I am no expert yet, but I’m determined to make changes and learn along the way.

compare your energy use to your neighbors'

So I logged into today and learned that we were randomly selected for this unsolicited feedback about our energy use. That really motivated me to figure out what we’re doing wrong that our neighbors are doing right! Social Psychologist Mark Van Vugt has written about how an appeal based on information, identity and incentives (negative and positive) can help people reduce their use of any shared resource. What’s great about Seattle City Light’s system is that the notices they send out are really backed up by a lot of information on their website and through live advisors. They also orient you to incentives in two ways: 1) by gently shaming you through the notices, and 2) by showing you how much cash you can save annually by making really specific small changes.

When I logged into the site, I filled out a detailed form and then set some goals. I chose a medium goal of cutting my electricity use by 10% by this same time next year. I realize 10% is very little, but I’m not sure how much of this energy usage I can control. We’re the only house on the block with no gas line, which makes me wonder how fair the comparisons are. Everything here, including the dryer, water heater and stove, is electric. An elderly family member lives in our downstairs apartment, and though I often turn off his lights when he’s gone out and left them on, I can’t directly control the ways he uses energy. In a way, we are two households in one, so I figure if we can get down to a figure that is double what the “efficient” households use (defined as the top 20% of similar homes), that will be a good start. In the prior 2-month billing period, that would have required a 13% reduction in our energy use. So it’s a reasonable goal for the first year, I think.

The utilities website lets you build a checklist of items to take care of. Mine includes the following:

1. Changing More Lightbulbs

As I was filling out their forms, I had to walk around and count how many of each type of lightbulb we have in the house. Though we’ve installed some compact fluorescents, we haven’t done such a thorough audit, and I found some spots where I can make a switch to CFL or the new LED bulbs that are even better.

energy efficient lightbulbs

2. Upgrading to Energy Star Appliances

Appliances are another issue. We moved here three years ago and have been using the old washing machine and two fridges (one in each kitchen) that came with the house. I have borrowed a Kill-a-Watt power meter from the Seattle Public Library to see how much those fridges are using and will probably upgrade at least one of them. The washing machine is probably worth upgrading, too – it is kind of wonky and seems to end up using warm water no matter how I set the dials. When I shut off the hot water valve completely, it fails to fill up. Hmmm.

3. Using the Dryer Less

I think we can do less laundry and also use the dryer less by hanging more clothes to dry. My son used to get all his clothes so dirty that we’d automatically wash every time he wore something, but I’m realizing that that’s no longer necessary. And though the dryer is so convenient, I’m excited to re-think whether I even need it. We’ve never felt the need to use fabric softener, dryer sheets, or dryer balls, but my Mom has been telling me how much she loves her reusable dryer balls, so I may look into whether they will increase the efficiency of  my dryer when we do use it.

4. Installing a Pellet Stove and Insulation

It’s the rare, really cold days that make us switch from the efficient heat pump we have to the regular electric furnace. If we get a pellet stove fireplace insert in the basement apartment, we can generate good heat where we need it most while foregoing all that electricity. And either way, replacing and adding to our nearly non-existent roof insulation is probably the most high-impact thing we can do. It’s just that it’s complicated to get enough insulation into our midcentury modern “flat roof” without cutting off all possibility of accessing that space during future renovations.

So thanks in advance for keeping me motivated and on task during this process! I look forward to hearing about all of your experiences and tips as I learn how to reduce this home’s energy use.




  1. A

    It was so interesting to learn about the insulation in your roof. I didn’t realize that insulation could deteriorate over time and that you would end up without anything! Good to know that you can add more and that it will keep your house nice and warm.

    As a renter, I’ve done the easy things like changing light bulbs and hang drying more clothes. Another added benefit to doing this is that it makes your clothes colors last longer.

  2. G

    You’re right, Alison – it’s hard to do a lot as a renter, but there are some things we can do. Thinking back, I wish we had advocated for a new fridge in a few places we lived. T had one that would occasionally freeze everything – ugh. It must have been ancient. I also used to put plastic sheeting and curtains up over super drafty windows in the winter sometimes.

  3. C

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I listened to a behavioral economics podcast (probably on Freakonomics) that explained data that the showed the gentle reminders comparing you to your neighbors really works.
    I’m always interested to hear what changes people make to conserve. My suggestion is to stop by the NE Seattle Tool Library and borrow one of their “Kill-A-Watt” devices to plug into your outlet to measure use and waste. I think they also have the blower door sealer thing used in energy audits.

  4. G

    Thanks for these great suggestions, Carrie! The Kill-a-Watt device is pretty cool. I borrowed one from the Seattle Public Library and will be posting about what I’ve learned from using it. We’ve had energy audits done, so I know what I need to do, I think. But there are always trade-offs! Like less water used in HE clothes washers makes it harder to use cloth diapers or build laundry-to-landscape graywater systems. I do think I can make some strides, though. Keep the ideas coming!

  5. M

    Coming from a northern cold climate I have been shocked at how many things in our current house would not work at all back home. The seal around doors for example. You can not survive a winter in the North East with small gaps around many of the doors.
    Having some repair work after a flood in our basement, I discovered that there is no interior vapor barrier in our house. In Ontario, you have insulation in between the studs, than a sealed floor to ceiling thick plastic wrap before installing the drywall. I have no idea if this is not usual here in the North West due to humidity levels but I do find that our house in the winter here is quite cold on windy days. Ceiling insulation is a quick and easy fix for most houses making them warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
    At our old house we were on a well. In summers of drought the well got very low and our old top load washer took a real toll on the water level. The day we switched to the front loader was fantastic. I had a great clothes line and used it all the time. Here I put my drying rack out on the front sunny balcony when I can Otherwise it is just in the hall. Replacing all the toilets in the house to low flush was another water saver. This house in Seattle is outfitted with dual flush and that is great.

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