Tuesday, November 30, 2010

December temperatures can be tough in SW Missouri!

While winter officially gets its start on December the 21st, I’ve always felt that it really started on the first and then lasted through the 28th of February. As you can see in the graph above we get some pretty cold December nights even this far south in the mid section of the country. Note that the data was obtained from a Davis weather station located just north of Branson, Mo.

My energy usage for 2009 in kilowatt hours was 2070 KWh, which I felt was a bit on the high side. As I pay about ten cents per KWh, that meant a bill over $200 for the month! If you average out the power, it equates to an average expenditure of 66.8 KWh per day. The year before (2008) I used 1878 KWh although that month was pretty average coming in at a mean temperature of 35.7F. while 2009 was a much colder 33.6F.

Since I heat my home with an air heat pump (which work in temperatures only down to a certain point), I know that the auxiliary heat will come on whenever the outside temperature hits about 35F. That’s pretty often for December, so one of my plans will be to use space heaters in the living area and bedroom to supplement the heat pump. The theory being that by using space heaters which are more efficient at delivering warm air to a particular room than the heat pump is, I will actually be saving some energy. That’s the theory anyway. The trade off will be to keep the need to keep the house thermostat set to a low number (perhaps 70F) which will insure the other rooms that do not have space heaters will be pretty cold. I’ll see how that actually works out as I go through the month which starts tomorrow.

The other affirmative action measures I have taken have been to cover some windows with 3M plastic insulation and to make sure that unnecessary electrical devices are turned off. I’ll follow up with a report at the end of the first week to report on how I’m doing.  

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The thing about mean!

When you take the daily high temperature and the low, add them together and divide by two you get a mean or average temperature for that day. Values can typically range from a high of 78F (a very hot day in the mid nineties followed by a muggy night in the mid sixties) to a very cold 5F with a typical morning temperature of twenty followed by a frigid night of subzero weather. Brr. At right is mean thermometer showing what you can expect at various mean temperatures.

As we head into the winter season, the mean temperature normally runs somewhere in the mid thirties. December, for instance normally has a monthly mean temperature of 35F. This means people living in southwest Missouri can expect daily highs somewhere in the forties with overnight temperatures falling into the upper twenties. Of course, there will be days when it gets up there into the sixties while some nights might flirt with single digits. But, in general, the range is an average high of 44F for a high and 23F for a low to arrive at a mean temperature of 34 for the three month period December through February (the data courtesy of the National Weather Service for Springfield, Missouri).

A cold winter temperature regime like this can prove to be daunting and costly if your home is either poorly insulated or if your heat source(s) are inefficient. Depending on what type of heating devices you have, it’s a good idea to have them checked on a regular basis. This is especially important if you are running a central system that may be in the form of a split conventional AC setup, a heat pump with one or more stages or a package deal. In my case, I have a two stage heat pump with a single stage cooling capability in a split arrangement. My average cost last year for electricity last year was about $120 at nine cents per kilowatt hour. But thanks to a recent increase of 13%, I expect my heating bills will be even higher. Unless I do something about them that is.

Just what can be done to reduce your electric bills? Well, some of the factors that can help reduce the overall cost include; making sure I have adequate insulation, setting the thermostat to as low as possible (in my case 70F) and making sure that the furnace/heat pump is working as efficiently as possible. That means having it checked for leaks and replacing the filter for a good start.

The other big unknown is just what Mother Nature plans to serve in the way of weather this time around. I’m now hoping Al Gore was right and that we will enjoy a warmer than normal Christmas!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Working with window films

In theory, at least, window films are an excellent way of boosting the r-value of a room for little money. By covering any windows that may be in a room, you’ve created and extra bit of dead airspace and dead air is a excellent insulation. If you have thermopane windows already in your home, it’s a cheap way to convert them to triple-pane.

Now, in the past, window films didn’t have much going for them. They were often cloudy and showed ripples when you had finished installing them .The newer films, however, are crystal clear and by using a blow dryer, you can get out most of the wrinkles. The end result is very pleasing to the eye, especially if you carefully trim off any excess plastic.

So, for an investment of under $20, it’s possible to improve the insulation of a room considerably. Just make sure before you go to the trouble that you have effectively sealed any cracks or other opening to the outside. Even a small space that lets in cold air can make any other efforts futile.

Some tips when working with films:

1 – This is not a single person project. You will need someone to help.
2 – Make sure to clear all obstructions (drapes, blinds etc) from the area prior to installation. You’ll be glad you did.
3 – Measure the window at least three times to insure you are cutting the plastic to the right size. I measured only twice and still screwed it up!
4 – When cutting the plastic, use a razor blade and not scissors like the package recommends.

Friday, November 5, 2010

My checklist for home winterizing!

Energy prices are on the rise across the nation and that’s a bummer. As a result, heating costs are sure to consume an increasingly larger portion of a household's energy budget. That's why it's important to check your home to insure that your heating dollars aren't being wasted.

When cold weather approaches, use this checklist of simple ways to make your home more comfortable and keep those escalating energy bills at bay. Now, while this may seem a lot of work, just remember what a really cold winter days feels like. Now get to work!

Check for Leaks
Weather-stripping and caulking is probably the least expensive, simplest, most effective way to cut down on energy waste over the winter. Improperly sealed homes waste 10 to 15 percent of the homeowner's heating dollars. Take these steps:
  1. Check around doors and windows for leaks and drafts. Add weather-stripping and caulk any holes you see that allow heat to escape. Make sure doors seal properly.
  2. If your windows leak really badly, consider replacing them with newer, more efficient ones. Keep in mind, however, that replacing windows can be expensive - it could take you quite awhile to recover your costs from the energy savings alone. But new windows also provide other benefits, such as improved appearance and comfort.
  3. Every duct, wire or pipe that penetrates the wall or ceiling or floor has the potential to waste energy. Plumbing vents can be especially bad, since they begin below the floor and go all the way through the roof. Seal them all with caulking or weather-stripping. Also, consider the use of canned foam!
  4. Electric wall plugs and switches can allow cold air in. Purchase simple-to-install, pre-cut foam gaskets that fit behind the switch plate and effectively prevent leaks.
  5. Don't forget to close the damper on your fireplace. Duh! Of course the damper needs to be open if a fire is burning; but if the damper is open when you're not using the fireplace, your chimney functions as a large open window that draws warm air out of the room and creates a draft. Close that damper - it's an effective energy-saving tip that costs you nothing! Note: If you have an enclosure, weather strip that also!
  6. Examine your house's heating ducts for leaks. Think of your ductwork as huge hoses, bringing hot air instead of water into your house. Mostly out of sight, ducts can leak for years without you knowing it. They can become torn or crushed and flattened. Old duct tape - the worse thing to use to seal ductwork, by the way - will dry up and fall away over time, allowing junctions and splices to open, spilling heated air into your attic or under the house. It's wasteful. Use approved duct tape. According to field research you can save roughly 10 percent of your heating bill by preventing leaky ducts.
Check Your Insulation
  1. Insulate your attic. In an older home, that can be the most cost-efficient way to cut home heating costs. Before energy efficiency standards, homes were often built with little or no insulation. As a result, large amounts of heat can be lost through walls, floors and - since heat rises - especially ceilings.
How much insulation should you install? Think R-38 insulation in ceilings and R-19 for walls and floors.
  1. Weather-strip and insulate your attic hatch or door to prevent warm air from escaping out the top of your house.
  2. Seal holes in the attic that lead down into the house, such as open wall tops and duct, plumbing, or electrical runs. Any hole that leads from a basement or crawlspace to an attic is a big energy waster. Cover and seal them with spray foam and rigid foam board if necessary.
Check Your Heating System
  1. Get a routine maintenance and inspection of your heating system each autumn to make sure it is in good working order.
  2. Replace your heater's air filter often, monthly is best. Your heating system will work less hard, use less energy and last longer as a result. Most homeowners can replace filters and do such simple tasks as cleaning and removing dust from vents or along baseboard heaters.
  3. If your heating system is old, you might consider updating it. A pre-1977 gas furnace is probably 50 percent to 60 percent efficient today. That means only half of the fuel used by the furnace actually reaches your home as heat. Modern gas furnaces, on the other hand, achieve efficiency ratings as high as 97 percent. By replacing an old heating system with one of the most efficient models, you can cut your natural gas use nearly in half!
  4. Purchase a programmable thermostat and use it! This thermostat allows you to automatically turn down the heat when you're away at work or when you're sleeping at night, and then boost the temperature to a comfortable level when you need it. Remember folks - it takes less energy to warm a cool home than to maintain a warm temperature all day long. Proper use of this device could cut your heating costs from 20 to 75 percent.
  5. Set the fan to run so that air is forced upwards to dispel the warm air that collects there. This will redirect the warm air from the ceiling and down the walls and into the living space where the people actually are.
  6. Make sure all hearing vents are opened and unblocked by furniture or other items. This will ensure that the air is evenly distributed through the home.
Change a Light Bulb
  1. Lighting our homes can represent 20 percent of home electricity bills and is one of the easiest places to start saving energy. If every household changed a light to an ENERGY STAR® one, together we'd save enough energy to light 7 million homes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 1 million cars.

Is a ‘mean temperature’ just bad tempered?

No, actually the word is a meteorological term that refers to the averaging of two or more temperatures. In many cases, it is the result of taking the high and low temperature that occur over a twenty four hour period. It’s an important number for anyone who wants to get a feel for how warm or cold a day was ‘on average’ The term is also used quite often in figuring how many heating or cooling degree days were needed to heat or cool a home or business. One popular approximation method to get this number is to take the average or mean temperature on any given day, and subtract it from the base temperature of 65F. If the value is less than or equal to zero, that day has zero HDD. But if the value is positive, that number represents the number of HDD on that day. Here’s an example:

Let’s assume the high for the day at your location was 54 Fahrenheit and the low was 32F. The average therefore would be (52+32)/2 = 43. We then subtract this from the bas temperature (65) to get a twenty-two degrees. Therefore there were 22 heating degree days (HDD) for that period of time.  Now that I’ve confused you completely, you might want to go to this article on degree days for a good explanation. A wonderful calculation for figuring your degree days for the year is here.

In my research on heating my home for this winter, I’ve developed a rough approximation of how hard my furnace will have to work for the next day by just looking at the mean temperature that is expected. How I arrived at this will be the subject of a future blog.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Predictions for the coming 2010-11 winter season.

I just love it when the experts forecast the weather for a coming season. What bold men and women they must be! This is especially true of the winter season when Mother Nature makes fools of us all. Like the folks who make up those horoscopes in the daily papers, a careful analysis would reveal that they actually reveal nothing much at all. When a statement is made like, ‘the Midwest will be calmer than last year’, they always are sure to back this up with, ‘but don’t count out the occasional blizzard.’

Having said that, the weather map released by AccuWeather.com could be better than most. Chief Long-Range Meteorologist Joe Bastardi is fairly well credentialed and I think has a pretty well developed sixth sense, so perhaps he is fairly close.

Fighting the cold, one watt at a time!

Earlier this fall I thought I might try and get a handle on my winter heating bills. I have a modest sized home of about 1600 square feet that is heated solely by electricity via a central furnace that is attached to a heat pump. The house is moderately well insulated and, consumes on average 1,350 kilowatt hours of energy per month. The winter months, however, have been much more expensive averaging 2,167 KWh for each month of December, January and December. At ten cents per kilowatt hour, that meant a combined bill of over $600. Since I do not use the 'average billing method', two hundred dollar electric bills back to back to back can hurt my budget a lot!

So, I figured I would take a stab at improving my energy management skills. To that end, I did a little research, talked to some friends and then developed my personal energy strategy for the winter of 2010-11. I’m not sure how ell this will work out, but I do promise to document the effort for the elucidation (and possible entertainment) of one and all. I hope to publish the results of these efforts as I get through the winter. (I’m personally hoping for a mild one this year).

Energy Wasters

Foremost in my energy savings plan was not to spend a lot of money on gadgets only to realize marginal savings. (That would be too much like how the government does things)! I wanted to first and foremost come up with a sensible energy goal and then plan from there. My initial research indicated that as much as a 15% reduction could be realized just by paying attention to and turning off devices that rob me of power with my even knowing it. I’m referring to electronic stuff like the TV in the living room that is on even when it’s not. Other devices like printers, cell phone chargers, wireless hubs and cable modems also came to my mind. I later found out that, in fact, over 20% of my monthly bill was attributable to these ‘hidden’ devices nickel and diming me to death!

So, the first order of business for me was to go out and buy a few multiple outlet boxes and timers to put these suckers on a lease. One of these went behind my large TV in the living room. I found that not only was it running 24/7 but also the high definition box next to it. That little SOB was using over 200 watts all day and all night. I hooked these to a timer that shuts off at 12 midnight and comes back on at 7AM. Another multiple outlet was placed in my room where my computer, screen, cable modem and wireless server are located. I did not place a timer on these, but rather depend on myself flipping a switch and shutting the whole shebang off before retiring. Finally, I went around the house and unplugged anything that did not absolutely need to be on. That included my printer, a robotic rug cleaner and even a hair dryer. So, that took care of that!

Furnace Setback

Next, I wanted to make sure that my furnace was not forced to heat the entire house at times when some of the rooms were not in use. My solution was to purchase a couple of space heaters that have built in thermostats and which can be calibrated to maintain a certain temperature during the daylight hours. Both were placed on timers also so they would be off overnight and only go one shortly after sunup to warm the Living room and Kitchen areas. I then made sure to set the central furnace thermostat down to 69F. Central to my effort to quantify results was a device I had purchased a year ago call T.E.D., short for The Total Energy Detective. This neat little device can be hooked to a computer to give the user a real time look at energy consumption for the entire house. After I had it installed and got used to the software, I’ve found this to be an invaluable resource. Here is a typical screen shot which gives me a lot of useful information. Especially when I’m trying to track down those mean old energy bandits.

The Total Energy Detective

The way I used T.E.D. was to initially go around the house turning absolutely everything I could think of off. Included were such items as the fridge, the water heater and even my main desktop computer. (In order to see what was going on with TED, I had a small laptop and left the cable modem and wireless server on). With that done, I jotted down the kilowatts still being consumed. I made this figure my baseline amount and then went around the house switching first the fridge and then other devices on an off to get a feel for how much power they consumed. As it turned out, by far the largest was the furnace followed by the water heater and refrigerator. These devices run pretty much all the time. Next, I looked at elective devices like the washer, dryer, dishwasher, microwave, coffee maker and TV. Each was recorded in its turn. When I had finished, I had a pretty good idea of what as using watts (pun intended) and where I needed to look at cutting back. I found, for instance, that a ‘normal’ day used around 30 kilowatt hours of energy. This is assuming no need of either the furnace or the AC. So, that became my baseline level from which to start.

Next blog….space heaters and how to employ them.

Winters can be finicky!

No matter where you live in America, the winter period of months December through March can range from mild to average to horrible. In southwestern Missouri, we have a climate that could be called mild when compared to location to the north like Chicago or New York. Typically, it begins to get seriously cold here in my town of Forsyth right after or shortly before Christmas. The average high and lows for the year are shown in the table below. This table represents many years of record keeping by the National Weather Service in Springfield Missouri. A key figure to watch is the mean temperature which is the average of all the highs and lows for the month. Notice that for November the mean is a relative balmy 46 degrees Fahrenheit. One way to visualize a typical day in this month is to imagine an ideal day where the high was 56F. and the low was 36F. So, the days of November tend to be cool during the day while dropping to near freezing at night. Now in real life, the actual recorded temperatures will meander up and down the scale. You might have one day where the high was seventy followed by a cold front that comes through and drops the mercury to only 50F. However, when all is said and done, you will find that the average is pretty close to this mean figure by a degree or so.

Now, as you can see things get much more interesting in December and January when the average temperature is almost a full ten degrees colder each month! Along with the floor falling out of the thermometer, we also tend to get a mix of wacky weather. This is due to the fact that southwest Missouri is the geographic location where a number of climate zones (climazones) come together to make for some wacky combinations of rain, sleet, snow and ice. Of these, one of the most weird was so-called ‘thunder ice’ that occurs when it’s literately a winter thunderstorm that rains ice! A rare event for sure, but one that you will never forget if your unlucky enough to get caught out on a country road that quickly turning to ice.

As if that were not enough, it can really get cold in these parts. In Warsaw Missouri in the middle of the state on February the 13th in 1905 the thermometer got all the way down to forty below zero! Now that’s cold. In 1903-04, one of the coldest winters on record were record here with an average three month high of 25 degrees! Just imagine going through that long a time period with the high temperature in the teens most days. Way back then,, most everyone heated their homes with wood and coal, so they didn’t have to face huge electric bills. Still, it must have been a nightmare to have lived through.

Can that sort of thing happen today? Sure! As a matter of fact we have a history of bad winter years that stretch back through time. Interestingly, the Farmer’s Almanac for 2010 which was just released is calling for a milder than usual winter for us here in southwestern Missouri while the east coast will see bitter temps while the north will get cold and snow and the west balmy temperatures with little rain or snow. So, we will see what we will see. The point is to make sure you are prepared, no matter what Mother Nature throws at you. That will be the topic of my next blog.


My purpose in creating this blog (Gods knows there are not enough blogs already) is to document my efforts to keep my energy bills as small as possible. No small task, as I have learned over the last year. But, with energy costs on a track to increase significantly over the coming years, I thought it might be fun and instructive to find out what works and what doesn't for me.

By way of background, I live in southwestern Missouri near a town known as Forsyth. A location that experiences a modified version of all four seasons. While our summer tend toward the hotter end of the spectrum, the winters tend to be mild and the spring and fall months delightful. On average my 1600 square foot home uses a two year average of 1,351 kilowatt hours of energy a month to run everything and to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The cost of this energy is currently at about ten cents a kilowatt hour having just experienced a 13.9% increase a couple of months ago. I think this still places my cost somewhere in the middle of the energy spectrum for what US citizens pay all across the continent.

At this site I have a weather station from Davis Instruments that does a pretty accurate job of tracking temperatures, winds and humidity. I mention this because outside forces can and do play a large part in terms of overall energy costs. This is especially true, in the winter, when I fight to keep every BTU I possibly can inside. The weather outside can and does have a huge effect on how much energy has to be added in order to keep the volume of space I live in comfortable.

During the course of this coming late fall season of 2010 and especially during the winter months, I have written a series of blogs that addresses my efforts to improve the efficiency of devices that affect my energy consumption and therefore my electric bill. While I do have a modest fireplace, I've already decided against using it as a thermal device (too small and way too messy). Instead, I plan to explore methods and devices that anyone can use to cut back on what they have to pay the electric company, while not having to shiver their way through the coldest months of the season.