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By Jim Fuquay

RISMEDIA, Sept. 4, 2008-(MCT)-Ellen Bright spent the money about three years ago to install a heat pump in her home. Too bad about 20% of the cold air it produces goes into her attic.

But that’s about typical for a 20-year-old home like Bright’s, said Jerold Davis of TexEnergy Solutions, the Irving, Texas, company that performed an energy audit on Bright’s 1,750-square-foot home this month. She won the audit as a finalist in TXU Energy’s Power Saver Challenge, which drew more than 1,500 entries from homeowners across Texas who described what they wanted to achieve in making their homes more energy-efficient.

Davis and TXU Energy representative Sophia Stoller spent much of the day prowling in, through and around Bright’s home.

After the audit’s results, Bright will receive $5,000 to make energy improvements and a high-definition video camera to record her results.

Bright will get the full report on her home in a few weeks. Then, she said, she’ll look at the costs and benefits and spend the money where “I’ll get the most back for the buck.”

By the end of September, TXU plans to post a video of her decisions and those of two other finalists. Viewers and experts will pick a winner, who will receive $30,000 in cash.

Here’s what Davis and Stoller found and what Bright is planning.

Heating and Cooling System: Bright’s all-electric home misses out on the chance for natural gas heating, the least expensive to operate, but her choice of a heat pump is the next best thing.

The heat pump is an efficient air conditioner in the summer, but also is a big improvement in the winter over a standard electric resistance furnace, said Harvey Sachs of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

With a proper thermostat, he said, the heat pump will be at least twice as efficient as an electric furnace, which uses coils to heat air, much like a giant hair dryer.

Bright figures that her electricity bill dropped at least $15-$20 a month with the new system. She said her electric bill averages $224 in the summer and $160-$170 in the winter.

Bright’s heat pump has a programmable thermostat, which she keeps at a relatively thrifty 79 degrees in the summer. But she doesn’t use the thermostat’s automatic setback feature, which lets the temperature rise during the day when no one is home and then cool down at the end of the workday.

She said she had always heard that it was better to keep the home a constant temperature, conventional wisdom years ago. Now she’s planning to program the thermostat to allow the temperature to rise to 82 degrees when no one is home, a move TXU’s Stoller said could save her about $150 a year.

Bright sticks a Post-it note on her air handler to remind her when to change the filter. It’s a 4-inch-thick filter that costs $30, she said, so she vacuums it monthly and replaces it every three months to save money. Stoller suggested that she consider changing it more often, given that Bright’s dog seems to be contributing to the filter becoming clogged.

Moving that air through the ducts is the next problem spot. Climbing into the attic, Davis and his crew found duct insulation and wraps typical of a home built in the 1980s _ and that’s not so good, he said. That material “is just falling apart” and allows leaks even in the best of circumstances, he said.

“Our target is, at most, 10 percent leakage,” he said.

Appliances: Bright guesses that her fridge is at least 10 years old.

Stoller noted that it doesn’t have an Energy Star rating from the government’s program for energy-efficient appliances and construction. According to the Energy Star website (, a new refrigerator could cost about $100 a year less to operate.

“There are two prices you pay for any appliance: the price you pay to buy it, and the price you pay to operate it,” Stoller said. She also recommended that Bright not keep her fridge so full.

A freezer can be jam-packed, Stoller said, but a refrigerator needs air circulation to operate most efficiently.

A bigger problem is Bright’s continued use of her old refrigerator in the garage. Not only is it probably even less efficient than the one in her kitchen, putting it in the garage makes it work harder in the summer, Sachs said.

“If you want to use it for parties, unplug it and leave the door propped open. Then plug it in a day before you need it,” he advised.

Running it year-round, he said, probably costs about $150 annually.
It’s empty, Bright said, so she just unplugged it.

Bright’s hot-water heater is electric. It’s not only the most expensive way to heat water, but it was set at 155 degrees-much hotter than recommended, Stoller said.

“We changed it to 120 degrees,” she said. She also suggested that Bright wrap her water heater, which is in the garage, with an insulating blanket to further increase efficiency.

Stoller also recommended that Bright use the air-dry setting on her dishwasher, running it at night and giving dishes time to dry on their own instead of using the washer’s heating element.

Lighting: Bright’s not sure of all the energy improvements she’s eventually going to make, but she knows what she’s going to do first: replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs. Right now, she doesn’t have any CFLs, which use about 75% less electricity than standard bulbs.

“Ninety percent of the energy an incandescent bulb uses is heat,” Sachs said. “It’s a better heater than a light source.”

Don’t be put off by a past experience with harsh light from a CFL, he advised. Manufacturers have developed a variety of “color temperatures,” as the yellow or blue cast of a bulb is called. Most homeowners prefer a “warm” yellow light, he said, although cooler-temperature “daylight” bulbs sometimes are better for work environments.

Windows: Bright has double-pane windows but no heat-reflecting coating on her home’s windows, Davis said. Although so-called Low-E glass is well worth its slightly higher cost in new construction, it makes no sense financially to replace existing, functional windows in an attempt to gain energy efficiency, he said.
Using a blower that fits over an exterior door, Davis pressurized Bright’s home, then used a smoke emitter to look for air leaks in the home’s windows and doors. Even new windows leak some, he said, but gaps around windows and doors often can be filled with caulk or new weather stripping, with good results.

Bright said she’ll do the caulking if that’s what’s called for. She also plans to look into window tinting, which can cut heat gain, or possibly replacing her old screens with solar screens, which also partially block the sun and heat.

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.