My energy audit

There are dozens of things you can do to prepare for a summer of heat and high electricity bills

SMUD’s Hugh Fowler tells Mike Pulley how to save power.

SMUD’s Hugh Fowler tells Mike Pulley how to save power.

photo by Larry Dalton

The evening sun bakes the roof and western walls of my little bachelor’s bungalow on Y Street in Oak Park like the fire-red coils of a toaster oven on a piece of virgin bread. A stump is all that remains of a grand old shade tree that used to block that ubiquitous evening sun from doing its damage.

From the energy conservation perspective, my little granny flat is a disaster. When Sacramento’s summer temperatures hit 90 degrees or higher, the only place livable in the 800-square-foot structure is directly in front of the wisps of cool air coming out of the small air conditioning unit in a tiny window of my living room.

This predicament wasn’t an issue when I worked in an office and then spent the summer evenings in the city’s restaurants and nightclubs waiting for those wonderful Delta breezes that give us relief in the middle of the night.

But all that changed when I began working at home and wanted to enjoy more home-cooked dinners in my kitchen, which heats up like the inside of an oven by 5 p.m. on really hot days. Now, the state’s energy crisis has worsened my situation.

So, for my education and yours, I contacted the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to see what advice they could offer a renter or homeowner trying to save energy and a few bucks.

Gregg Fishman at SMUD said their energy conservation efforts are now primarily handled over the Internet at Renters or homeowners can perform their own analysis of their home’s energy efficiency by clicking on the ‘energy smart’ home audit. It’s also available on CD-ROM.

But if you’re still living in the digital dark age, SMUD will provide you with a written version of the audit to fill out and send in. The utility will mail you back the analysis.

‘In terms of actually sending auditors to their homes, we only do that if there are cases where [the online audit] does not explain what’s going on,’ Fishman said.

The availability of home auditors could possibly grow in the future after SMUD receives an additional $8 million to fund energy conservation efforts through the recently approved Senate Bill 5X.

The ‘EnergySmart’ audit asks basic multiple-choice questions about my residence, such as: ‘What is the age of your water heater?’ (I don’t have a clue until I look at the fine print on the labels stuck on the side of the cobweb-covered tank), and ‘What is the approximate size of your water tank?’ (Mine is categorized under the smallest option: ‘Very small: 30 gallons or less.')

Just in the act of closely examining my water heater for the first time, I discovered a surprising revelation. The water temperature of the tank can be set at four different levels: very hot, hot, warm or low. I have been oblivious to the fact that my tank has been set on ‘hot’ for the entire three years I have lived in the home. I turned it down to warm, anticipating cool showers during the dog days of summer.

Once you’ve answered all of the questions about your home, you can have your computer print a detailed, customized ‘home energy analysis report.’

I learned that my simple click of the dial on my water heater temperature-setting was no simple gesture considering that my water heater is the third most expensive energy user in my home. It costs me approximately $106 a year.

The number one culprit is my gas heating system, which keeps me comfortable in the winter but causes me to send in $1,021 of my hard-earned wages to Pacific, Gas & Electric Co. every year.

My refrigerator places second in costliness at $110 a year. Other expensive energy users in my home include lighting ($97) and that ineffective tiny AC unit ($54).

What’s great about the ‘home energy analysis report’ is that it also gives you dozens of specific suggestions that even a renter can use to reduce the cost of each of those key energy burners.

For example, to reduce the high cost of that PG&E bill, the report suggests that I should regularly maintain my home heating system by cleaning it and tuning it periodically (which could save me from $86 to $144 a year on my bill), turn off the pilot light during the summer (a potential annual savings of from $20 to $33), avoid heating unoccupied areas (annual savings in the range of $76 to $127), and by lowering the thermostat setting, a move that could save me as much as $80 in a year.

My heater only has two settings: low and high. I vowed to keep it on the low setting more often during this coming winter and put on sweaters if I’m cold, and to close the door of my back bedroom so that I’m not heating it during the day.

The report continued with dozens of tips and suggestions. For example, it told me that my lowering of the hot water temperature could save me as much as $15 in a year, and that I could save another $4 to $6 a year if I obtained a fairly inexpensive water heater blanket for my tank.

Other measures a renter can take include the purchase of compact fluorescent bulbs, which now retail for $6 or $7 each at places like Costco. These bulbs last significantly longer than conventional light bulbs, use much less energy and eventually pay for themselves many times over.

And then there was the real kicker: I can obtain a shade tree to replace the one that died in my backyard through SMUD’s shade tree program in collaboration with the Sacramento Tree Foundation (see SMUD’s Web site for more details). With a grin, I imagined leaving my place in the sun.

All of these measures seem minuscule by themselves, but it’s the combination of the many small changes that will add up to substantial savings, especially in a year when bills will be skyrocketing. I saw that I could save money and make my abode more habitable during the hot days that lie ahead.

When I contacted my landlord, Dennis Garwood, he was surprisingly amenable to performing some measures himself on behalf of my comfort and my pocket book, such as putting more insulation in my attic. (Of course, he knew that I’m planning to mention him in this story, so he had a vested interest in looking good before the world … thank you, SN&R).

For the sake of the story, SMUD sent out an auditor to give me additional suggestions. I learned that I can obtain special window blinds directly from the utility to block some of the heat from the ferocious evening sun, at least until my new shade trade matures.

SMUD subsidizes the cost of the blinds, making them available for approximately $20 each. There are so many other things I can do, too, as I learned from Hugh Fowler, supervisor of residential and new construction services.

Now all I have to do is do it … and before those big electric rate increases kick in next month.