Take Back Your Energy Bills — Energy-Efficiency Measures that Work for You

Take Back Your Energy Bills — Energy-Efficiency Measures that Work for You

Published: July 3, 2013

You know that 10 or 20 pounds that you just can’t seem to lose? You do the right thing — eat kale or log time on the StairMaster — but the weight clings. You feel powerless.

It’s like that with our energy bills, too. Eighty-nine percent of us think we’re not using as much energy as we did five years ago, and almost one-half of us think our homes are energy efficient. But 59% also say our energy bills have gone up, according to consumer research by the Shelton Group, a marketing and advertising agency that specializes in energy-efficiency issues.

Call that the Snackwell’s effect, says Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton. Basically, we’re saying, “I bought these CFLs so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I bought a high-efficiency washer and dryer because I want to do more laundry without paying more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.”

Unfortunately, that disconnect has led to defeat. We feel victimized by our energy bills and powerless to the point where we’re making fewer energy-efficient improvements. In fact, Shelton’s research shows consumers made only 2.6 improvements in 2012 compared with 4.6 in 2010.

Until the day we all get energy dashboards in our home, we’re here to help you understand why your energy costs are where they are and how you can take back your energy bills.

Hint: You need to do four or five energy-efficient things to see a difference; one or two won’t cut it. But — good news! — they don’t cost much to do.

Energy bills chart

Related: Are Smart Meters Dangerous?

Why Do We Feel Victimized?

We don’t know what we’re buying. Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis for which we have no idea how much we pay until a month later, says Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a research and policy-making nonprofit focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency.

Energy costs are going up. Inflation is mainly to blame. Your bills are projected to rise on average 2% per year through 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the research arm of the energy department. Expect about 3.4% per year if the economy gets sluggish.

Other trends pushing up our energy usage:

  • A growing population means more homes.
  • New homes are getting bigger, though our families are getting smaller, according to the Census Bureau.
  • We’re plugging in more devices (computers, smart phones, tablets, X-boxes, plasma TVs) per household — and not unplugging them. (More on behavior later.)

In fact, for the first time, energy use for appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting accounts for more than heating and cooling, according to EIA.

Still, overall consumption is pretty flat through 2040, thanks in part to:

  • Appliance efficiencies.
  • Population migration to dryer, warmer climates in the South and West.
  • People living in multifamily rather than single-family situations.

We make assumptions.

Assumption #1. Unless a home is old — more than 30 years — we figure it was built to code, which requires a certain amount of energy efficiency. But building codes change pretty regularly, so even newer homes benefit from improvements, says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research and insights with the Shelton Group.

Assumption #2. We think utilities are out to get us: They’ll jack up prices no matter what we do. Shelton’s research shows consumers blame utilities above oil companies and the government. But keep this mind: To get rate changes, utilities must make a formal case to public utility commissions. They’re also on the hook to pay for such things as:

  • Infrastructure upgrades put off for years
  • Efficiencies
  • Equipment repairs after bouts of nutty weather
  • Consumer rebates

Another reason rates seem stuck is because utilities bundle fuel, service, and delivery fees together.

Assumption #3. Our expectations for energy savings are out of whack. When the Shelton Group asked consumers what they would expect to recoup if they invested $4,000 in energy-efficient home improvements, they said about 75% to 80%.

Sorry, unless you invest in some kind of renewable energy source like geothermal and solar, you won’t see that kind of savings. If you do all the right things (we’ll tell you about the best five later), you could expect a 20% to 30% reduction, Head says, particularly if you don’t succumb to the Snackwell’s effect.

What does 30% translate into? $660 in savings per year or $55 per month, based on the average household energy spend of $2,200 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Assumption #4. Many of us don’t know how to make the biggest impact on our homes. That’s why we sometimes replace our windows first, when that should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements, Shelton says.

There’s nothing wrong with investing in new windows. They feel sturdier; look pretty; increase the value of your home; feel safer than old, crooked windows; and, yes, offer energy savings you can feel (no more draft).

But if you spend $9,000 to $12,000 on windows and save 7% to 15% on your energy bill, according to DOE data, when you could have spent around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing, and saved 10% to 20% on your energy bill, you made the wrong choice if your only reason for the project was reducing energy costs.

The real reasons for getting new windows are “emotional rather than financial,” Shelton says.

The 5 Things You Should Do to Show Your Bills Who’s Boss

1. Caulk and seal air leaks. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and knock yourself out over a weekend, sealing penetrations into your home from:

  • Plumbing lines
  • Electricity wires
  • Recessed lighting
  • Windows
  • Crawlspaces
  • Attics

Savings: Up to $220 per year, says EPA

Related: The Biggest Air Leak in Your Home You Don’t Know About

2. Hire an HVAC contractor to take a hard look at all your ductwork — are there any ducts leaking that need to be resealed? — and give you an HVAC tune-up.

Savings: Up to $330 per year, for duct sealing and tune up, says DOE

3. Program your thermostat. Shelton found that 40% of consumers in her survey admit to not programming their thermostat to energy-saving settings. She thinks it’s even higher.

Savings: Up to $180 per year, says EPA

Related: How to Program Your Thermostat to See Real Savings

4. Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs or CFLs. We suggest LEDs, which have fewer issues than CFLs (namely, no mercury), and although expensive are coming down in price. We’ve even seen a $10 model.

Savings: $75 per year by replacing your five most frequently-used bulbs with Energy Star-rated models, says EPA.

Related: Guide to Buying Light Bulbs and Which to Use Where

5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. Set your tank heater to 120 degrees — not the 140 degrees most are set to out of the box. Dropping 20 degrees could save 6% to 10% on your annual water heating costs, which are 14% to 18% of your utility bills. Also wrap an older water heater and the hot water pipes in insulating material to save on heat loss.

Savings: $18 to $39 per year

Important note: Resist the urge to total these numbers for an annual savings. The estimated savings for each product or activity can’t be summed because of “interactive effects,” says DOE. If you first replace your central AC with a more efficient one, saving, say, 15% on energy consumption, and then seal ducts, you wouldn’t save as much total energy on duct sealing as you would have if you had first sealed them. There’s just less energy to save at that point.

But these practices can help you achieve the goal of shaving 20% to 30% of your annual bill ($440 to $660).

Energy Savings is Addictive. What Else Can We Do?

If you want to go further and spend more, especially if you’re not planning to sell your home soon:

  • Add insulation. Anything you can do to shore up your building envelope is good.
  • If major appliances like your HVAC and water heater are nearing the end of their useful life, research energy-efficient replacements and keep the info where you’ll remember. Otherwise, you’ll make a reactive purchase when the unit finally breaks.
  • Contact your utility about rebates for investing in improvements. Or visit DSIRE, a database of federal, state, local, and utility rebates searchable by state. Energy Star has a discount and rebate finder, too.

A Final Word: Oh, Behave!

Remember the Snackwell’s effect? If your behavior — unplugging chargeable devices from the socket when they’re done charging; putting computers, TVs, and media on smart strips and turning them off at once; reprogramming your thermostat at daylight savings time — doesn’t support your improvements, you’re letting energy, an invisible product, win.

Related:

  • Trying to convince someone you live with to be more energy efficient? Here’s how to win the energy-savings argument.
  • Fun DIY Projects to Cut Energy Use

 

By: Christina Hoffmann:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

Why Fake Grass is Gaining Popularity

Why Fake Grass is Gaining Popularity

Want a picture-perfect lawn? Maybe fake grass is the answer. It solves watering, weeding, and fertilizing woes. But is it perfect?

If you live in a low-water area, or if you’re just tired of constant lawn maintenance, you’re in good company.

More homeowners are saving time, water — and their backs — by switching from real grass to artificial turf.

Synthetic grass for landscaping and recreation is growing 10% to 15% a year in the U.S.

That means more and more homeowners are using fakes for:

  • Lawns
  • Dog runs
  • Play areas
  • Pool surrounds
  • Rooftops
  • Putting greens
  • Decorative borders between patio pavers

Faking It is Right for You If:

  • You’re tired of watering, weeding, fertilizing, and cutting real grass.
  • Your summer water bills are too high.
  • You don’t want to use chemical fertilizers and herbicides.
  • You believe artificial grass looks as good as real grass — maybe better.

What Exactly is Artificial Grass?

Fake grass consists of filaments threaded into a backing that lets water through. The backing is laid on a drainage layer, usually compacted gravel, and fastened along the perimeter. Then it’s filled with recycled crumb rubber or sand to keep it from blowing away in a stiff breeze.

Today’s synthetic grass is made of nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene that’s colored to look like various species.

Synlawn, one of the largest manufacturers of synthetic grass, offers: SYNBermuda, SYNFescue, SYNZoysia — you get the idea. Some grasses even have a thatch layer that makes a yard look less Stepford-like and more realistic.

Let’s Talk Money

Artificial grass comes with a big upfront cost — $5 to $20 per square foot, installed. Once it’s down, it’s free for the next 15 to 25 years.

Professionally laid sod, on the other hand, costs only 14 to 60 cents per square foot. But that’s where expenditures (and upkeep) begin. You’ve got to water, mow, fertilize — all of which cost money and take time.

Let’s crunch some numbers on a hypothetical 500-square-foot yard.

First year costs:

Artificial Grass
Installation ($12.50/sq. ft. average) $6,250

 

Natural Sod
Installation (37 cents/sq. ft. average) $185

Annual costs:

Artificial Grass
Watering n/a
Fertilizing n/a
Gardener/Lawn Man n/a
Annual Total: $0

 

Natural Sod
Watering ($15/month for 6 months) $90
Fertilizing (20 cents/sq. ft.) $100
Gardener/Lawn Man ($25/week for 26 weeks) $650
Annual Total: $840

So, it would take about seven years for maintenance-free artificial grass to recoup its initial cost. If you’re planning on staying put for longer than that, you’ll begin to save money each year.

What are the Good Points of Artificial Grass?

  • It saves water.
  • It’s easy to maintain.
  • Synthetic grass can be environmentally friendly.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority says a home owner saves 55 gallons of water per year for every square foot of natural grass replaced with synthetic. Plus, some water companies in drought-prone areas will offer a cash rebate for artificial grass, up to $1 per square foot.

You’ve got to blow off leaves and other debris, and hose off pet waste. But there’s no mowing, seeding, edging, and fertilizing — lawn maintenance chores that take the average home owner about 150 hours per year, says Ted Steinberg, author of “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.”

The Synthetic Turf Council says synthetic lawns’ recycled crumb rubber infill keeps 20 million rubber tires out of landfills every year.

What are the Drawbacks?

  • It’s not completely maintenance-free.
  • It can’t absorb and break down pet urine.
  • It heats up in direct sun.
  • It can’t be recycled.
  • Some HOAs and municipalities ban fake grass.

Weeds can still grow in the dust or rotted leaves that can accumulate; so, you’ll have to spend time blowing or raking.

If you don’t hose off pet runs regularly, they’ll stink.

It radiates heat to surrounding people, pets, trees, and buildings. Shade trees, which prevent real grass from growing, will prevent fake grass from getting too hot.

Although the industry is working on ways to recycle old synthetic grass, currently fakes end up in landfills.

Alternatives to Fake Grass

  • Low-Maintenance Turf Grasses
  • Natural Lawn Replacement Ideas

Or, if you want to green up your lawn in a hurry, try lawn paint.

 

 

 

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

Tips on Pool Fence Safety to Reduce Your Liability

Tips on Pool Fence Safety to Reduce Your Liability

There’s nothing more inviting on a hot summer day than a cool dip in the pool . And that can lead to trouble if your pool lacks a child-proof fence.

Installing a fence around your swimming pool is a smart security measure that prevents kids from having unsupervised access. In many areas, the law and your insurance company may also require it. But how do you know what kind of fence to pick?

Here’s where things get tricky.

There Are No Standard Requirements

The U.S. does not have a federal pool fence law. Instead, pool barriers are regulated at the state and local level.

Wait, it gets more complicated.

There are exemptions built into these laws. For example, families with children over 6 years old don’t have to install a pool fence in Arizona — unless you live in Scottsdale, Glendale, and several other areas.

See what I mean? It’s confusing.

Then you have to consider that although your pool might be exempt from fencing laws, your insurance company might require it.

So, what to choose?

Follow These Recommendations to Be Safe

Here’s a list of features every pool fence should have, based on legal requirements across the states and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:

  • Height: Some areas require a 4-ft. fence; the CPSC recommendation is 4 ft. or taller.
  • Structure: Must be impossible for children to climb.
  • Type: Permanent fencing is ideal because of durability.
  • Gate: All states require that they open outward away from the pool area, and be self-closing and self-latching.
  • Materials: Structures can be made from a wide range of stuff including wood, vinyl, and aluminum. However, make sure the material you pick is not easily susceptible to damage.

For more on pool safety, visit PoolSafely.gov.

The 3 Most Popular Types of Fences

1. Removable mesh pool fencing: Many consumers like this option because it’s an easy-to-move transparent barrier. But when it comes to safety, don’t skimp. The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals has set a standard for fences like these that is recognized worldwide. Here in the U.S., it has the approval of the American Society for Testing and Materials. So if you go with a mesh barrier, make sure it meets or exceeds the ASTM requirements. In many areas this is also mandatory by law.

2. Vertical bar fencing: Structures can be made from a wide range of stuff including wood, vinyl, aluminum, and wrought iron. However, make sure the material you pick is not easily susceptible to damage. In most states, the space between the vertical bars can’t be more than 4 inches wide.

3. Glass panel fencing: Barriers like these are very popular in California. They are durable and safe because they’re made from tempered glass. Plus, since they’re transparent, they don’t detract from your pool’s beauty.

Add Additional Protection

Keep in mind: Many states, such as New York and California, require layers of protection in addition to fencing.

Examples of additional layers of security include:

  • Automatic rigid pool covers
  • An underwater motion swimming pool alarm
  • Rescue equipment

But who do you contact in your area to get the skinny on swimming pool safety? Since every state and county sets up their agencies differently, try contacting the following departments in your area:

  • Building Code Department
  • Department of Health
  • Licensing and Regulatory Affairs

 

 

By: Deirdre Sullivan:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

Does a Pool Add Value to a Home?

Does a Pool Add Value to a Home?

Published: July 10, 2013

Learn how a pool affects the value of your home, and get advice on construction and maintenance costs.

Does a pool add value to a home? No. And yes.

In general, building a pool is not the best way to add value to your home. You’re better off making physical improvements to your actual house instead of adding a pool to your yard.

Related: What Home Projects Give the Most Value?

However, a pool can add value to your home in some cases:

  • If you live in a higher-end neighborhood and most of your neighbors have pools. In fact, not having a pool might make your home harder to sell.
  • If you live in a warm climate, such as Florida or Hawaii.
  • Your lot is big enough to accommodate a pool and still have some yard left over for play or gardening.

Still, that’s no guarantee you’ll get a return on your investment. At most, your home’s value might increase 7% if all circumstances are right when it comes time to sell. Those circumstances include the points made above, plus:

  • The style of the pool. Does it fit the neighborhood?
  • The condition of the pool. Is it well-maintained?
  • Age of the pool. If you put a pool in today and sell in 20 years, you probably won’t recoup your costs, especially if the pool needs updating.
  • You can attract the right buyer. Couples with very young children may shy away from pools because of safety issues, but an older childless couple may fall in love with it.

But only you, the homeowner, can determine the true return on investment. A pool can add value to your quality of life and enhance the enjoyment of your home. You can’t put a price tag on that.

But we can put a price tag on how much a pool costs to build and maintain.

The Cost to Build a Pool

The average cost in the U.S. to install, equip, and fill a 600-sq.-ft. concrete pool starts at $30,000.

Add in details like safety fences (most states require them), waterfalls, lighting, landscaping, and perhaps a spa, and you’re easily looking at totals approaching $100,000.

Costs also depend on the type of pool you choose.

Gunite is the most popular in-ground pool. Gunite is a mixture of cement and sand, which can be poured into almost any shape. It has replaced concrete pools as the sought-after standard.

Fiberglass shells and those with vinyl liners fall on the lower end of the budget scale, but the liners typically need replacing every 10 or so years. Changing the liner requires draining the pool and replacing the edging (called coping), so over time, costs add up. Most homebuyers will insist that you replace a vinyl liner, even if it’s only a few years old.

Related: Fences for Pool Safety

Filtration and Heating

The filtration pump is the biggest energy hog in a pool system, so you want to get the most efficient pump possible. The good news here is that new, variable-speed pumps use up to 80% less energy than old single-speed pumps, cutting operating expenses dramatically.

At about $500, these cost more up front, but some local utilities offer rebates through participating pool dealers. You can further cut energy costs by setting the pump to run at non-peak times, when rates for electricity are lower.

If you’re planning to heat your pool, gas heaters are the least expensive to purchase and install, but they typically have the highest operation and maintenance costs. Many pool owners opt instead for electric heat pumps, which extract heat from the surrounding air and transfer it to the water. Heat pumps take longer than gas to warm the pool, but they’re more energy-efficient, costing $200 to $400 less to operate per swimming season.

Regardless of heating system, covering the pool with a solar blanket to trap heat and reduce evaporation will further lower operating costs.

Related: Solar Pool Heater Costs and Facts

Maintenance Expenses

All pools require that the water be balanced for proper pH, alkalinity, and calcium levels. They also need sanitizing to control bacteria and germs, which is where chlorine has traditionally entered the picture.

These days you have a variety of options, including systems that use bromine, salt, ozone, ionizers, or other chemical compounds that can be less irritating to skin. Chlorine remains the most popular because the upfront costs are reasonable, and you don’t have to be as rigid about checking the levels on a set schedule. But as far as your wallet is concerned, they all even out in the end.

In a seasonal swimming climate, budget about $600 annually for maintenance if you shoulder the chemical balancing and cleaning yourself; in a year-round climate, it’s more like $15 to $25 per week.

To save yourself the task of once-a-week vacuuming, you can buy a robotic cleaning system for between $500 and $800 that will do the job for you. In locations where the pool must be opened and closed for the season, add another $500 each time for a pro to handle this task.

Related: Natural Swimming Pools

Insurance and Taxes

A basic homeowners insurance policy typically covers a pool structure without requiring a separate rider, but you should increase your liability from the standard amount.

It costs about $30 a year to bump coverage from $100,000 to $500,000. Many underwriters require you to fence in the pool so children can’t wander in unsupervised.

In some areas, adding a pool may increase your annual property taxes, but it won’t necessarily add to your home’s selling price. For that reason, try to keep your total building cost between 10% and 15% of what you paid for your house, lest you invest too much in an amenity that won’t pay you back.

 

 

 

 

By: Julie Sturgeon:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

 

How to Properly Care for Trees

How to Properly Care for Trees

When trees fail to thrive, they (and you) have a problem. Here are tips on how to care for your trees to prevent troubles.

Unless our trees have problems, we don’t fuss about them. So long as they’re green, leafy, flowery, and fruity, we let them be.

But when trees fail to leaf out in spring or drop the leaves they have; when foliage turns brown before autumn; when trees lean precariously or branches die; then suddenly our trees become the center of attention.

What’s wrong? The likely culprit is human error. Trees often get sick because they haven’t been planted and cared for properly.

The good news: It’s pretty easy to give your trees the care they need to stay healthy and fight off diseases. Here are the most common errors and how to avoid them:

Improper Pruning

Improper pruning can destabilize a tree, encourage the spread of disease, and even make it fall over.

Signs of bad pruning include:

  • Tree is leaning more than usual.
  • Tree looks top- or bottom-heavy.
  • One tree is blocking the sun from another.
  • Tree is too big for its space.
  • Pruning cuts are jagged.

Do it right:

  • Pruning is as much art as science. A properly pruned tree looks balanced and beautiful; it feels comfortable — not squished into — its space; it lacks dead branches or ones that crisscross.
  • Pruning techniques — where and how — are specific to each species of tree. So before you make your first cut, consult a pruning manual.
  • Make sure your saws, loppers, and shears are clean and sharp to prevent disease.

Mulching Mayhem

Mulch helps protect trees (especially young ones) from stress and gives your yard great curb appeal. But more mulch is not necessarily better, and too little mulch does little to protect trees.

Signs of mulching mistakes:

  • Mulch piled up against the tree trunk, volcano style, which can cause trunk rot and encourage infestation and disease.
  • Mulch covering the tree’s root collar, where the trunk flares into the root system.
  • Exposed roots.

Do it right:

Begin mulching about 6 in. from the tree base, and extend the mulch to the end of the tree’s drip line just beneath the end of the tree canopy. Start with 1 in. of mulch toward the base, building up to no more than 4 inches at the end of the mulch circle.

Use mulch only from reputable sources, not strange mulch piles that may contain material from diseased trees. To save money, make your own mulch from healthy lawn clippings, shredded leaves, branches, and bark.

Fertilizer Frenzy

A tree planted in a sunny location with good soil and covered with organic matter doesn’t need extra fertilizer: it makes its own food through photosynthesis.

Still, many homeowners mistakenly think their trees need an annual dose of fertilizer that adds minerals and nutrients to the soil. In fact, the opposite is true. Over-fertilizing can poison a tree’s root system, cause excessive and weak growth, and pollute watersheds.

Signs of over-fertilizing:

  • Small or yellow foliage.
  • Dead branches.
  • Reduced growth.
  • Salts on soil surface.

Do it right:

Many ailments — infestation, compacted soil, trauma, and nutrient deficiency — can cause a tree to show the same symptoms of over-fertilizing. So before you add fertilizer, test your soil to determine which, if any, nutrients your tree lacks. A good time to test soil is either before you plant, or every 3 years or so after planting.

If fertilize you must, add only the nutrients your tree needs, usually nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Fertilize in early spring and fall; never fertilize during drought.

Planting Mistakes

Your new tree has so much potential. But if you plant a tree that doesn’t fit your hardiness zone; if you manhandle the little one and squeeze it into a hole that’s too narrow and too shallow; you may limit your tree’s future.

Signs of improper planting:

  • Trees grow into utility lines or foundations.
  • Scant or dry foliage.
  • Stunted growth from inappropriate sun conditions.
  • Dieback due to trauma at planting time.

Do it right:

You and your trees will be together for a long time. So when you select a species and location, consider the eventual size of the mature tree — the spread of its canopy and roots — not just the dimensions of the sapling. Plant trees away from overhead power lines and underground gas lines, and at least 15 feet away from the house (up to 35 feet for big trees).

When planting, dig a hole 3 to 5 times the diameter of the tree’s root ball and about 1 ft. deep. Make sure the root collar (flare) rests just above the soil surface. Don’t forget to water slowly and deeply until the root system is established.

If you want to be warned away from troublesome trees, check out these stories:

  • 11 Trees You Should Never Plant In Your Yard
  • More Trees You Should Never Plant in Your Yard

 

 

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

 

ContactUs.com