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.
So I logged into seattle.gov/light/homereport 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.
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.