Home Energy Projects that Did / Didn't Work Out

Home energy-saving projects can be tricky. Some of us have even tried some on our own.

Tonight we would like to know what experiences readers have had, that they would like to share with others.

I don't do much along this line on my own, but will share some experiences that were related in a Linked-In group called RESNET BPI - Energy Audit and Home Performance. Most of the participants make a business of fixing up homes and other building to make them more energy efficient.

The question the group was asked was

Drawbacks of a project-specific approach
Does anyone know of or have had an experience where you focused on a very specific energy project within a residence or small commercial building that later came back to haunt you because a larger feedback loop was missed?

I'm interested in hearing your take on what drawbacks and/or benefits there may be to taking a narrow project-specific approach vs. a whole-building approach.


The answers received were as follows:

Example 1 - Sealed Ducts

In the air-conditioning world, one notable example comes to mind. If you seal a leaky duct system without verifying the impact on airflow and sensible ratio, you can cause system performance to drop off a cliff and increase the risk of coil freeze-ups.

Manclark and others have written about this. But in my experience, many home performance practitioners don't understand this problem. Here's a brief explanation:

The indoor coil temperature (as well as system efficiency and performance) is strongly related to the amount of air that flows across the coil. If the duct system is significantly undersized (a common problem), the only thing that may be keeping the coil from freezing up is the leakage. From the blower's perspective, leaky ducts look like a larger duct system. When leaks are sealed, static pressure increases, which in turn suppresses blower output and lowers the coil temperature. Even if coil doesn't freeze, a colder coil will remove more moisture, thus lowering the system's sensible capacity. It takes a lot more energy to condense moisture from the air than to cool the air, so a colder-than-necessary coil increases operating costs.

Anyone who seals duct systems needs to know how to test system airflow. Mitigation usually involves duct system modification, which requires a mechanical license in many jurisdictions.

Sealing leaky ducts will also change house-to-outside pressure dynamics, which can be a serious problem if the home has a fireplace or open combustion appliances inside the envelope. I think most practitioners understand this issue.

This is a related magazine article, called Of Mastic and Mistakes by Bruce Manclark from a 2001 Issue of Home Energy.

Example 2 - Attic Insulation without Air Sealing

Another uninted consequence is adding attic insulation without air sealing in a cold climate. The insulation may slow heat loss to an extent that the temperature of the underside of the roof is often below the dew point; the lack of air sealing allows warm, moist air to enter the attic space and condense on the cool roof; the combination of bulk water and unfinished OSB or plywood is a road to serious problems.

Example 3 - Unvented gas logs and home sealing /insulation

And another: a lady who turned out to be a residential energy person for a local utility called one winter for an evaluation of the insulation in her older home. The first thing I noticed from the outside was the sparkling new windows of good quality. The second thing I noticed upon going in the door was two unvented gas logs flickering cheerfully. The first question is for me is always to inquire about the homeowner's concerns.

"Well," she said, "I'm always cozy because I run the gas fireplaces whenever I'm home, but I had a terrible problem with condensation on the windows. Fortunately, that problem went away when the new windows were installed. Now I'd like to know what else I can do to improve my home."

The red lights went on like an eight alarm fire. She had no air sealing, of course. When I explained that the old windows were actually protecting her by dehumidifying the house, that the new windows were a meretricious improvement, and that the moisture from the unvented gas logs was still there and being driven into wall and attic spaces, she became angry.

When I explained that the gas logs would have to be removed before air sealing and insulation could be installed she threw me out of the house.

You can lead a horse to water . . .

P.S. In case the word "meretricious" is not familiar, it means basically that something looks like a really good thing, but in fact it is not. I'm an English major after all, so I often sound a little weird.

Now, with fall approaching, I am sure some readers are consider undertaking projects of their own. What experiences do you have to share? Do these examples remind you of any experiences of your own?

Here's a couple of recent sobering experiences

accidental poisoning - I painted some rusty patches on a curved metal roof with a water sealing compound. Then the pressured tap water from the rainwater tank tasted like oven cleaner. I installed a charcoal filter to remove flakes but the dissolved taste lingered for a couple of weeks.

firewood gathering in a deluge - during 100 straight days of rain and sleet your dry firewood stash runs out. Then you have to go out in the forest clambering over wet logs with an idling chainsaw. When you inevitably slip don't grab the throttle by mistake. Think of a leech using a razor.

Easier said than done, but you should always have two years of firewood put up for drying. That way you cannot run out, even if the winter is unusually cold.

When we moved into our current home it was an energy sink with lots of low hanging fruit to pick. I will skip some of the more obvious things we did.

1. We have high ceilings; half of which have recessed lighting which has attic behind it. When we moved into the house there was no insulation between the walls with the lighting and the attic because the lights would then over-heat, creating a hazzard. By putting in compact florescents into the recessed lighting there was less heat produced, I was then able to add insulation in the attic.

2. Changing the plumbing so I can easily drain 1/2 the pipes in the house and now we do not heat 1/2 the house in the winter.

3. Insulated shades in the rooms that we do heat. It is a lot cheaper than swapping out the windows and more effective in both summer and winter.

4. A good wood burning stove and the use of dead fall trees around the house for heat. The furnace only runs 5-6 times a year unless we go on a long trip in the depth of winter. The thermostat is set for 40 degrees F. We now only use LP for hot water so one 400 ga LP will now last over two years... even longer if we needed it to.

5. A down comforter for every member of the household and let the house get cold over night. The first person up gets to re-start a fire for the house to start warming up. Children that were more likely to get up very early in the morning are now more likely to stay in bed a little longer... giving mommy a little bit of "quiet time" in the morning.

Installed instant hot water (propane powered) in house for new bride, electric tank system had worked fine for me for years, but not enough
for filling big bathtub for hot soaks. Propane had up until that time
been used for gas logs (rarely). new hot water would stop working almost invariably while she was taking morning shower before work, but sporadically,
one month not at all, another month 10 times. marriage lasted into the Fall when I installed outdoor furnace which also heated hot water. wedded bliss.
but spring came, and outdoor furnace was no longer being operated, propane heater began to act diabolically again. finally in desperation brought new
plumber in: regulator was wrong one, broken (and probably never worked), pipes wrong size, i was lucky the house didn't burn down. God's grace. all fixed and wedded bliss now available for all seasons.

I'm a devoted Do-It-Yourselfer, and I'm a little wary when I hear too much about 'unintended consequences' or 'you don't know what you're in for; it's harder than you think' in reference to such projects.

While it IS important to be aware of pitfalls and complications, there are also a lot of messages out there telling people 'don't try anything crazy, or you'll be sorry!'

There are hazards, and myriad problems arise, but you also have the chance to learn intensely from the process of figuring, implementing and yes, failing a bit and REfiguring.

My Solar Hot-Air panel last year worked quite well (but I need several more), and so I just spent some precious birthday money to get materials for two additional units, but my wife balked at the prospect of adding more impromptu and unpermitted creations to the roof that so far keeps ourselves and our stuff relatively secure. I have to convince her, AND the town I suppose, that this is a legitimate undertaking, safe for us and our neighbors and the firefighters who might have to contend with these things someday.. It's already a lot of work just building the damn things and hauling them to the roof, bolting them in and ducting, etc.. But it's fair enough that I have to dot some i's and cross some t's at this point.

Also, I also built my own cellulose-blower last year, since the rental units are too bulky, and having one allows me to do a section at a time, when time permits. Even with a mere 3" of channel to fill, it has helped take the edge off of a couple rooms which once had very chilly plaster walls. I'm still angling to seal insulated Tapestries onto those walls as well, but face a bit of resistance from the frau.

With luck, I'll have the controller circuit built and the pipes set up to 'catch' some cold and run a winterfridge this year, moving Antifreeze (PROPYlene Glycol), from a finned radiator outside the house into a retired freezer which will carry a tank of the cooled Glycol above it, sipping cold as the thermistor calls for it.

One more project that may see light of day this year is to rehang classic Shutters on the windows, but make them from Insulation board, with a means of easily opening and shutting them (either manually or on a timer) at dusk and dawn, to improve the overnight R-factor of the windows substantially.

My experiments proceed slowly, as I try to keep an income happening in this tortured economy.

Portland, Maine

I put in solar hot air panels two years ago. I will say if you have a place for them they are great. They allow me to go through the end of September without firing up the wood stove or turning on the furnace (quite a feat up here in northern Vermont). A bit of engineering is required, but it is well within the capacity of a DIYer.

My panels are on a south facing vertical wall. I like that better than on the roof because they are at a better angle for winter, and I don't have to worry about compromising the roof integrity.

I had a company install two solar air panels last summer (using a built in solar panel to power the fan). They are mounted on a wall facing south-south west and are directly vented into the main living room. My house is newer (2002 model, 2000+ sq feet) and is open concept so the heat does spread around nicely. I've recorded air coming from the solar panels as high as 78C (172F). For those without solar air heating, air from your home goes though the panels (heats up) and is put back into the home. Dampers keep air from flowing when the panels are not warm (at night, or during a snowstorm).

Although I live in a northern city (Ottawa, Canada), I didn't need to use the furnace until the end of October last year and I stopped using it a month earlier than normal. I plan to add more panels in the future so my furnace eventually becomes a secondary source of heat in the winter. I use natural gas and although my heating costs are already under $1000 per year, I would like to get this as close to $0 as possible.

I've used a nanotech paint Nansulate that insulates. Our house is 1600 sq ft with 30 windows built in 1927 with no insulation in the side walls story and a half I've done about 60% of the interior and our utility bills have ave.$100 bucks per month at 70 degrees summer or winter.Last fall I coated the basement concrete walls and rim joist except for the wall that butts our drive way that I coated just half in yrs past the south facing drive along the wall would melt back to the middle of the drive within a day and a half of snow or ice this past winter the half coated had melted back about a foot and the other section was to the middle of the drive.The winter before last I had the utility show up saying they were going to move the meter from the basement they wanted a quick inspection which they do twice a yr anyway when the guy showed up he wasn't carrying his sniffer said the engineer would call Monday to set up a move date"I've only tried for 20 yrs" The engineer did his spiel and said it would be moved within the month.Then I told him what I had done on energy efficiency cutting our bill by about 70% and it's two yrs now and the meter is still in the basement.


I am EXTREMELY interested in Nansulate since I have lots of glass (even though it is double glazed). Could you provide more information on application, how it performed, does it "obscure" visions, etc.

Thanks in advance.


I've used it on a single pain glass that is about 2x2 that is above our refrigerator cubby hole in the kitchen it makes it look like frosted glass applied t with a form roller and small brush do it on interior side of glass for long life and no chance of glass sweating during drying time.I will as I have time coat the interior side top half of my storms.I'm also going to do an antique front door that has lots of glass and will make a pep hole with masking tape.

I posted several comments about our DIY house in a previous thread about Passive Solar.

However, this post is about the two major issues that have been the most difficult to resolve:

- We have lots of south facing glass, heavy insulation, and plenty of thermal mass (which works well) however, the night time heat loss is substantial and the cost and technology for insulating the glazing against this night time loss is a real challenge.

- Heat exchange for air infiltration is another important toptic that is neither cheap or easy to implement.

These two items (although we were aware of them) were not given sufficient priority in the overall building process. As a DIY effort, we still have projects on-going after many years. However, these two items keep getting back-burnered because of the expense involved in actually doing them. My suggestion for anyone building a DIY passive solar home is to consider these two points very carefully - and budget accordingly.

Nice House!

I suppose you've looked into Roll-down Insul. Shades for the Glazing, indoors and/or outdoors?
Those windows would be tough to shutter, but there are some possibilities, like a Trifold panel on the Wall section below the 2fl Windows?

I have also mentioned the 'cool tube' we used for a fresh-air source in a Passive Solar Saltbox home in the White Mts in Maine, around 1980. It involves digging an extended, drained airpipe into the sub-frostline earth, and care needs to be taken about pooling and molds in condensation in the summer, but this seemed to be a very reasonable approach. (We never had a mold issue in ours..)

Good luck.

Hi Bob,

Thanks for the ideas. I really had not thought about exterior method for the windows - will look into that. I was more focused on insulating drapes but worried about condensation if not sealed tighly - thought about magnetic seals.

Cool Tube sounds interesting also.

There is a new window condensation calculator that allows you to estimate the highest R value shade you can use on a not well sealed interior insulating shade without condensation.
Its here: http://www.builditsolar.com/References/Calculators/Window/condensation.html
Its basically a function of interior humidity level, outside temp, and the R value for the existing window -- the calculator estimates the maximum R value you can add with a shade such that the inside window surface just hits the dew point.

We use ComfortTex (sp?)shades on some of our large windows -- I believe that they add R4+ to the existing windows. They have side tracks that prevent circulation around the shades. We never get condensation, but we do live in a dry climate, and the existing windows are double glazed low e. Do a Google on "Energy Tracks" to find the side tracks. I believe that Symphony Shades also carries side tracks.

We have a big wall of windows on the house (not my idea - they came with the house), and for the upper windows, where the light is more important than the view, I've installed triple wall poycarbonate glazing panels inside the existing windows -- this is the kind of glazing often used in greenhouse, but a three wall version instead of 2 wall. I like them a lot -- they add about R2.8, and still let in plenty of light -- how-to here:


When I built my house I ran an emergency circuit throughout the house. Each room has a recessed 19w fluorescent light and an outlet. This circuit is tied to an 110v inverter that turns on automatically when public power fails. I installed the system to accommodate my 95-year-old mother in law.

I installed a 92% efficient propane central air furnace with electric wall radiant heaters in each bathroom and bedroom. Again to accommodate mother in law. Old people are not comfortable at 70 degrees. When propane price went to $1.60, I installed a couple of additional electric wall heaters and turned off the propane furnace. My electric rate is $.0445kwh.

My wife is allergic to wood smoke so I did not install a wood stove in the house even though I have an abundance of fire wood. Looking to the future, I built an insulated heater room on my back porch and blow the filtered hot air into the existing central air circulation system. The hot air blower switches automatically from public to inverter power when public power fails.

Cold water into my electric water heater is about 50 degrees year round. I placed a junked hot water tank in the wood heater room and connected it to a copper coil placed between the heater firebox and outer wall. The water is circulated with a small pump. The preheated hot water is now the cold-water input to the electric hot water heater.

I live in southwest Washington and we have sun almost every day from June 15 to October 15. I know from personal experience that a 40 gallon steel tank paint black and placed in the sun will heat water hot enough to scald your butt. Next summer I plan to place a junked tank in a glass box on my roof and plumb it into my hot water preheater.

The result of this project is wood heat, and wood/solar preheated hot water.


Thank you for your kind post regarding RESNET/BPI. For a further description of what this stands for:

RESNET is the Residential Energy Services Network, a non-profit association of Home Energy Raters. Resnet is best described as a provider of standards and certification for a standardized process of a mile per gallon equivalent for residential buildings. Home Energy Raters typically provide the rating but don't normally do the actual contracting.

BPI is the Building Performance Institute which provides contractor training which can include combustion analysis, carbon monoxide evalation and performing such repairs as the duct sealing mentioned in the messages that were quoted.

Both organizations are involved in training and providing services to increase energy efficiency in homes.

Thanks for the information. I am sure readers will be interested in this group.

These are a couple of links:

RESNET Organization

RESNET Certified Rater Directory

Hi Gail,

Thanks for sharing this information with everyone.

I work with BPI. Here's a little background on them for your readers.

BPI is an independent, not-for-profit organization, recognized across North America as a leading developer of technical standards, training, credentialing and quality assurance programs for residential energy efficiency retrofits.

BPI certified professionals (individuals) and accredited contracting companies (organizations) are trained to properly diagnose and fix the root cause of home performance problems using a house-as-a-system approach based on building science. They conduct a comprehensive whole-home assessment--going beyond a simple 'energy audit' to find the real problems, then prescribe and prioritize improvements that make the system as a whole function at its best.

BPI is deeply involved in both the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR initiative from EPA and DOE, and many state weatherization assistance programs.

The website is www.bpi.org (FYI, a new and improved site is coming in the next few weeks)

I guess I've been lucky since just about everything has worked as I planned from the PV system to the solar hot water to the heat exchanger in the wood stove.

What didn't work was the 1.5kW wind generator and it wasn't the generator's fault. I simply put it in th wrong place. I sold it for more than I paid for it rather than moving it 500' and putting it on a bigger mast.


What was wrong about where you put it? Did you check for wind in that location before you put it up? Did your prevailing wind turn out to be from a funny direction or something?

Where I live we burn oil for electricity. When the oil price spiked, electric rates went through the roof, so we installed a solar system. Solar PV is cheap and easy enough for any homeowner to have installed. The equipment was supplied by this company:


If you're going to do an off grid system, you can save a lot by using cheap off the shelf Wal-Mart deep cycle batteries (model 27DC6 works well).

Also, we replaced our office fluorescent tube magnetic ballasts with electronic ones. This saves a lot of energy.


LED lamps save a lot of energy but can be expensive. These lamps from Sams are cheap and work well.


Written by conservationist:
Solar PV is cheap....

We must live on different planets. My off-grid PV system is less expensive than running power lines, installing an electric meter and paying the monthly bills at my place, but is more expensive when compared only to the cost per kilowatt·hour of electricity from the grid. The price of PV is improving, but I would not call it cheap.

Written by conservationist:
... you can save a lot by using cheap off the shelf Wal-Mart deep cycle batteries (model 27DC6 works well).

You will learn the hard way that deep cycle marine batteries have no business being labeled deep cycle. Unless you bought an overabundant number or barely discharge them, their skinny lead plates will fail in about two years. If you treat these nicely, they will reward you with a long lifetime. My previous battery array lasted 14 years.

That's an example of taking something out of context. The point I was trying to make is that solar PV systems are cheap enough for a homeowner to afford. As opposed to say, building a nuclear power plant in your backyard. And electricity rates vary depending on where you live. I've paid as much as 42c/KWH for grid power. Our PV system is paying for itself.

The Everstart batteries are pretty close to 2 years old now and show no signs of failing. They're also less than 1/2 the price of comparable MKs. And it's never a good idea to discharge a lead acid battery completely.

For our second passive solar house, we decided to go off grid, minimalist and low budget. House is of steel/polystyrene/steel panels. It is a 12 volt set-up, electrically self-sufficient (for lighting and sound) using a 50 watt PV panel, 4 second-hand 65 amp/hr batteries, all LED lights (home-made, buy them in bulk and assemble them series/parallel) and car stereo. Total lighting draw less than 2 Amps.
We tried wind, but where we are we get a gale, then weeks of nothing. Solar is much more even, and quieter, much quieter.
All air shunting is by thermosyphon, with manual vents. Cooking and hot water by woodstove.
There are no electric kitchen appliances (no kitchen plugs), no nothing. Hereabouts appliances are 230 volts AC, and we have a washing-machine and vacuum-cleaner running off a generator at that voltage - charging laptops etc as it does so. It runs 2 hours a week.
'Fridge is a top-loading freezer carcass set outside the South (we're in the Southern Hemisphere) wall, and a bay of the house outcrops above it. The lid surfaces in the outcrop - the body is permantly shaded outdoors, 1 foot of styrene all around it. 12 volt compressor, only needed in summer.
A tip: use double-glazing except in a couple of downstairs windows - condensation will go there, will drip down and can be chanelled outside. It beats de-humidifiers.....
The other thing is not to over-current you LED's, it can shorten their life dramatically - we found out the hard way....
Minimalism is the key - if you don't have it, it won't cost you, and it won't break down.

It would be more useful if this subject matter is more focused through specific questions/ themes ( i.e. thermal insulation for residential buildings in cold or warm climates, passive solar shading for office use, night time ventilation for offices, etc.) Energy use in cosntruction and buildings is a very large subject so if everyone writes bits and peices in one thread there it all tends to lead to tiresome and unrpoductive generalizations. The number one thing to state for example is where is a building located which relates to a certain climate and microclimate, for what use and in what context - if that basic information is not included then we are simply not comparing apples to apples.

There's a rather common pattern of "strategic failures" associated with any kind of energy savings project, that the ones that work the best often stimulate more energy use impacts elsewhere. Part of it is the Jeavon's paradox problem, that reducing demand for things lowers the price and stimulates new demand to replace it. As a result much of the effect you intended doesn't actually occur. When you're part of a whole system in which everyone uses things to the max, relieving pressure locally doesn't relieve the pressure of the whole system.

There's the more basic problem, that learning to "do more with less" lets you "do more". Improving your own productivity is a lot like "printing money". If you save money on doing one thing, you have more money for your consumption of other things... It's actually feedback loops of that kind, combined with how money put in savings is used to create new appetites and businesses, that produces economic growth.

So how do you get out of that?? You could put the savings you gain from efficiencies for non-consuming perfections of life, rather that buying and having "more" life. Switching from "more and more" to "better and better" takes a thought process shift, that can be seen demonstrated in any kind of whole system that stabilizes and perfects itself. Our brains are just not taught to think that way. It takes a while to get the knack, and not just leave yourself open to being taken advantage of in a world where a growth culture is increasing its control of everything it can lay its hands on all the time. Finishing and perfecting things is a way to continue being creative without consuming more and more, but sort of breaks with the great ideals of modern culture...

The Jeavon's paradox is certainly valid if your are looking at an entire civilization; the net effect of efficiency is greater consumption. However, for a peak oil aware person, the Jeavon's paradox does not necessarily apply. If you save money on utilities, you could spend it on something useless and wasteful, but you could also spend it on greater efficiency gains or save up for a home PV system or something.

Note that Jevons' Paradox only applies if the resource in question is not scarce.  This does not apply to oil; as we saw in 2005-08, even a quadrupling in price did not bring significantly more to market.

What efficiency will do with oil is keep it affordable much longer, and keep up the supply of services (transportation) for which it is key.  Efficiency also makes alternatives more competitive and expands what can be provided by e.g. a relatively small amount of crop and forestry byproducts.  The route of increased efficiency points toward a "soft landing" scenario.

If the building stock gets more efficient with gas, the logic is similar.

I'm wondering if you're thinking about the same thing. It seems to me the time when Jevon's paradox is strongest, both for it's micro-economic an macro-economic effects, is when it's scarce and profitable to create supplies by reducing waste.

You can see that in just what you follow with, the direct effect that oil efficiencies make oil affordable a little longer. That also multiplies the size and kinds of things people can do with the oil, is one of the worrisome macro effects. That of course leverages the oil for uses have growing impacts on everything else, but is only part of the problem. Without strong incentives invest the profits to prevent that and build sustainable systems, what also happens is you have an ever more integrated system becoming ever more dependent on depleting it's main resource.

It seems to me the time when Jevon's paradox is strongest, both for it's micro-economic an macro-economic effects, is when it's scarce and profitable to create supplies by reducing waste.

Yes and no.  All the oil people are saying that the depleting reservoirs canNOT be pumped faster without damaging them (with the possible exception of fixes like CO2 flooding).  Supplies are not being created.  We are now in a race with depletion.  Do you think we can increase efficiency at 6% YOY?

You can see that in just what you follow with, the direct effect that oil efficiencies make oil affordable a little longer.

Efficiencies make the services affordable longer, but they don't make oil itself more affordable.  As the price of oil rises, alternatives become competitive.

Without strong incentives invest the profits to prevent that and build sustainable systems, what also happens is you have an ever more integrated system becoming ever more dependent on depleting it's main resource.

I think we're seeing the build starting.

Let me try an example.  We have vehicles like the Corolla which achieve ~35 MPG; at $2.50/gallon fuel, it costs about 7¢/mile to feed.  We have vehicles like the Chevy Volt on the way.  If 75% of its mileage is driven on electricity at 10¢/kWh and 250 Wh/mile and the remainder on gasoline at 50 MPG, you have to pay 20.5¢/mile for gasoline before the average cost reaches 7¢/mile.  That's $10.25/gallon.

Lots and lots of fuel supplies are cheaper than oil at that kind of price.  I'd bet that Dynamotive's synthetic gasoline from pyrolysis oil comes in well under that.  And enough fuel would be available even from renewable sources; if fuel demand was slashed by 4:1, the USA would only need about 35 billion gge/year for light vehicles, or about 52 billion gallons of ethanol.  At 100 gallons per ton, it would only require 520 million tons of biomass per year to supply that from cellulosic sources.  The USA has an estimated 700 million tons/year available right now.  This looks like soft-landing territory to me.

The issue I'm raising, of course, is that peak oil is not an isolated problem from the sustainability of the system that oil is the main seed resource for. As a civilization we're running out of our seed resource. The question is what is the best use of it. If you save on utilities you have a lot of choices on what to do with the savings is just the point!

How a system as a whole uses its surpluses is the main way systems steer their developmental directions. Steering toward a mature economic system with a stable vitality is the only really sustainable future available. Not many people seem to talk about it though. I think that's because we're not conversant in how natural systems grow and mature.

I have a letter coming out in the next WorldWatch on Economies That Become Part of Nature"

I have completed many small projects that have cumulatively reduced my electricity use by 2/3's and my natural gas use by 1/3.


When roof shingles needed replacement, replaced gray shingles with white shingles.

Replaced all conventional bulbs with CFLs.

Installed electronic thermostat.

Installed ceiling fans in living room and each bed room.

Installed light blocking shades.


Used V-strip weatherstripping in conventional windows.

Installed electronic thermostat.

Hot Water:

Installed low flow shower head, and sink aerators from a Niagra kit.

Insulated hot water lines with rigid foam insulation.

Set gas water heater to 120 degrees.


Picked Energy Star electronics when available.

Turn off lights and appliances with firm switches when not needed.

None of this is was very expensive or difficult.

I've used an Aquastar tankless water heater for many years and love it. But when I installed one for a friend she kept have problems with it turning off when showering or rinsing dishes.

I had to watch how she started up the shower and did dishes to catch the problem...
* In showering she would run the hot water full blast in the tub until it got hot, then adjust the hot and cold knobs until it was a nice temperature, then use the diverter to send the water up to the shower head - at which point it quickly became all cold water.
* In doing dishes she filled one side of the sink with hot water for washing then swiveled the faucet over to the other side of the sink and throttled the flow down (still on hot) to a trickle for rinsing.

Turns out that tankless water heaters have a safety device that requires a minimum water flow rate for them to keep running. She had a fancy low-flow shower head (which was below the minimum flow rate) and that her dish rinsing trickle was also below the minimum flow rate.

So we took the flow restrictor out of the shower head, and she switched over to doing a cold-water dish rinse - and the problems disappeared.

The project specific vs whole system dilemma seems to be that in order to save some water heating energy with a tankless water heater you may need to plan to use (waste?) a little more water...

We moved into a 1930's house 5 years ago knowing we had to do a lot but the unique construction hooked us. This house is in the middle of a medium sized College town in the upper midwest so utilities are reasonable and reliable. Summer highs in teh mid 90's and lows in the mid -20's (F) annually. Hose was originally 1380 sq ft but now 1520 with 3 season porch. ouse feels much bigger because of excellent use of built in storage everywhere, particularly second floor under the 10 in 12 pitch roof.

The basement ceiling (first floor) is 4 inch thick concrete slabs on concrete beams. This is a 1.5 story Cape Cod with Brick wxterior and a very small doormer for the upstairs full bath. Second floor is hardwood over conventional 2x6 joists. The interior walls on 1st and second floor are 2x4 with lathe and plaster, ceilings the same. The windows were original single pane, double hung with weights. The gas furnace was "new" (in 1957) replacing the coal fired boiler and we still have the coal chute and room now converted to a pantry in the basement. Gas hot water was older model and utilities were vented into an internal chimney that runs up the center of teh house. There is another chimney for the fireplaces in the basement and first floor that is on the north side/exterior of the house. Kitchen is from teh 1960's including very old built in GE electric stove and oven. A 3 season porch was added in the 1970's onto the much smaller outside porch, 1/4 of this is over basement the rest on slab.

The changes.
1st year.
Replaced furnace and hot water with 95% and 97% direct vent gas units. Furnace has DC variable drive blower to run at low speed to circulate air efficiantly. Installed programable thermostat.

2nd year.
Installed Vermont Castings Wood stove insert and chimney liner and sealed off. Stopped using programable thermostate because the house has so much thermal mass it is more efficient to keep at 68 in winter than cycle between 62-68. Wood heat goes up center stairwell and heats most of teh second floor acceptably. Wood heat also keeps thermostat off making furthers downstair rooms cooler than living room.

3rd year.
Sunroom walls rebuilt (super insualted) with existing double pane sliding windows left. Black tile replaced carpet to get some passive solar gain. Didn't know I could have put down a super insulating cork layer. First mistake and oversight. Blinds on sunroom windows to keep sun out in summer and reduce cold air drain in winter in this room

4th year.
Reroofed house and replaced blown in insulation in attic with R60 fiberglass (2 layers) as an attick blanket. Removed central chimney down into the wall space of second floor to reduce cold air infiltration into core of teh house. Replaced all exterior windows (except sunroom) with Anderson double pane double hung replacements with coated glass. Air conditioning almost never runs now because we close the house up in the morning and open at night. The thermal mass + excellent windows keeps the house cool all day except in constant high humidity 80+ degree weather which is rare. Most nights get to low 70's which is cools the house.

5th year.
Installed ceiling fan in Mater bedroom upstairs to drive the heat off the ceiling. The super insulated attic works in winter and in summer but you still have to exchange air. Removeing chimney down rest of the house in preparation for kitchen upgrade. The chimney goes through kitchen which is tiny and we can gain 9 sq feet by removing it which is a lot to us. Considering putting in either electric or hydronic floor heat on the slab in every room except living room, which has the wood stove. Learning that modern temperature controls don't work with my house due to the thermal mass of the concrete and plaster.

All in all the house is very tight and once the temperature is set it stays there. The house works great for slow heating and cooling since the walls just don'e change temperature quickly. I am investigating solar hot water but almost no one in the community knows details that I want.

As a poster said above, you need to do these things on your own often against recommendations of others who are used to different applications.

Gail, thanks for starting another excellent discussion thread!

One very simple trick I learned from a friend who works in construction: a simple box fan placed at entrance to attic to force cool air into hot attic. I know there are more elegant and permanent solutions for venting the attic, but boy what a difference it made this summer for us! Our central A/C died, and we don;t have the cash to replace it yet. Cooling the attic dropped our interior temp several degrees.

Next up for our old home, weathrization and high efficiency furnace w/ A/C...

About fifteen years ago my brother built a new house in NSW, Australia, in a location which is two miles from the nearest grid power. It was not specifically built to be energy efficient, but was built to be cheap to maintain. The climate is hot and dry in the summer (temperatures up to 105F/40C) and moderately cold in winter (temperatures down to about 20F/-7C). Some key decisions about the house:

  • Construction: steel frame with steel siding and roofing (cheap, cheap to transport materials, and termite proof).
  • Fiberglass insulation filling all outside wall cavities and R19 in the ceiling.
  • Wide verandah all around to shade the walls in summer.
  • All windows and doors double-glazed.
  • Cooking with wood-fueled slow combustion stove, which also works as a backup water heater.
  • Primary hot water heater is solar, with the system mounted on the roof.
  • Heating by circulating hot water through polyethylene pipes cast into the slab.
  • Cooling with ceiling fans and by large sliding doors in all four walls to allow through breezes.
  • Electricity from dual photovoltaic sun-tracking panels charging dual 24 volt lead-acid batteries, with a smaller backup system, a fixed PV panel charging a 12 volt battery. Each system has a 240 volt inverter, with a controller to allow the house to be supplied from any combination of the systems.
  • Water collected in tanks from the roof.

How has it turned out? Generally, much as expected. He has added shadecloth curtains in on the outside of the verandah where the summer morning and afternoon sun shines on the walls and the doors. The electric system has had more problems than expected:

  • The lead-acid batteries are starting to die. At over 100 pounds per cell, removing one to replace it is not a trivial task.
  • With increasing usage for computers, and grandchildren who are addicted to video games, the system was not up to the load, even when it is sunny (which it is most of the time). Replacing the CRT TV with an LCD one did a lot to solve this problem.
  • The controllers for the sun-tracking mechanism died. When he went to get a replacement, he found the supplier had disappeared without trace. When he investigated reverse engineering them, he found the markings had been scraped off all the IC chips on the circuit board. The panels are much less efficient without tracking.

To work around these problems, he initially supplemented the system with a small gasoline generator, but this became expensive as fuel prices went up. He has recently (within the last three years) installed a small 12 volt wind generator, and bought a well-used diesel generator. The wind generator helps supplement the solar system most of the time, and the diesel generator is used when there are a lot of visitors, or an extended period with clouds and little wind.

The house is extremely comfortable in winter. In summer, many people would find it a bit hot. Lighting is adequate, using compact fluorescents everywhere. He has enough power to run a refrigerator, a freezer, radios, a computer, television, microwave, washer, etc. He has also found the wood stove heats the house too much in summer, and uses a small propane stove for cooking then.

Here's a site with tracker circuits, and kits for sale. People have modded them for use with some heavy loads and also very small setups.. good luck!

Fun stuff on Heliostats and Heat Engines, too!



I upgraded my older homes from the 1970’-80’s over the years and designed and general contracted my current home.

My advice is to install double pane windows if you don’t already have them. This will greatly reduce uneven temperatures in rooms. This can be a do-it-yourself project. Fiberglass frames recommended because they are much stronger than vinyl.

Upgrading to double pane windows will lessen the airflow through duct work when you next replace HVAC equipment. You may be able to go down a unit size,. Variable fan speed air handling units will also lessen resistance through undersized duct work and are more efficient.

Manual J from Air Conditioning Contractors of America explains how to calculate heating and cooling requirements and how to size duct work. My experience in industry is that air balance problems are often caused by a few undersized ducts and that replacing only those will solve distribution problems.

Use metal ductwork. It lasts forever and has less air flow resistance than flex.

Replacing old furnaces and air conditioners will bring you up to today’s higher energy efficiency standards.

With these changes along with compact fluorescent lights I was able to reduce my home energy consumption by 30%.

Purchased 4 Bedroom detatched in the UK Nov 2006. 200m2 floor space. Mid 80's design, poor insulation, double glazed.

November 2006 - CFL's throughout

December 2006 - put in Seedbuk A rated condensing boiler (91% efficient)

January 2007 - cavity wall insulation and 200mm of loft insulation (contractor)

September 2007 - 20 tube solar water heating system

January 2008 - another 200mm loft insulation

February 2008 - added extra insulation to backs, sides, tops of fridges and freezers

August 2008 - another 20 tubes plus 200 litre tank

February 2009 - 5KW Westfire wood burning stove with internal twin wall flue system. Wood supplies from almost infinite supply of untreated pallets, and local windfalls - mainly poplar, sycamore and horse chestnut.

Future plans - imminent purchase of 660w PV - still pondering whether to grid tie or battery bank them (I have 400 ah of ex telecom exchange batteries)

No major issues - Gas consumption down to about 4000kwh per annum. Electricity 3000 kwh

We've focused on non-complex projects with little to go wrong.

Moved to Hawaii and designed a cheap house with high ceilings (plywood, glass, screen, light-colored metal roof) which uses the trade winds for ventilation. No heating or cooling of the home; skimpy clothes in summer, heavier in winter. No artificial lighting necessary anywhere in the house during daytime. The roof can double as water catchment as necessary.

A simple switch on the water heater. Only gets turned on rarely. Old swimming pool converted into pond, so no need to run a pump; we have a solar-powered small pump to turn the water over. Put up a clothesline to replace nearly all use of the clothes dryer. I reuse a few silk shirts, hand-wash them when showering (cold, feels great) after evening walk, hang to dry and the shirt's ready to wear next morning.

Rearranged our lives to not commute anywhere, and consolidate our trips so total family car mileage <1000 mi/yr, most on a 1500cc engine.

Raised border collies instead of human children. Recommended. Better temperaments, don't shop or need their own cars, legal to work them all day.

Many other small things add up. I will note that there's an ongoing process of trial & error; during the heat wave last week I tried flash-drying my sweaty T-shirt in the microwave oven; worked well for a few days but I got distracted and wrecked the shirt, now wearing it with microwave burnthroughs. Wife has nix'ed the practice. Also save some energy by procrastinating on chores; the society of sloth has to start somewhere.

This is more of an aesthetic choice than anything else; Jevons or no Jevons.


Hi Gail,

That's a great idea to talk about the relative merits of our attempts at efficiency. Mine is a tiny one- I think I may have mentioned it long ago in DB - with excellent feedback from Paul in Halifax.

In early 2006 I replaced a bunch of incandescent bulbs with CFLs. For years I had had three CFLs in the garage - relatively expensive at perhaps $7-10 each, and were around 10 years old and still functioning perfectly. Of course the total duty cycle in the garage is quite low, perhaps helping explain the long lifetimes. But they were also well-known brands like Sylvania or Philips. I also had a CFL-based torchiere with some 26W "pin-type" CFLs that runs a little warm, and its bulbs tend to last 5-6 years each.

The new spiral bulbs were largely from HD and hardware stores and were unfamiliar brands like "Commercial Electric" and "Max-Lite". I verified each bulb's power consumption with a Kill-a-watt, but I didn't try to measure the light output or spectral output.

Within two years, nearly every bulb failed. There was no pattern to the failures - bulbs were oriented in different ways, some within an enclosure, others open to the air, none in recessed fixtures. But each had discoloration of the plastic housing at the point where the bulb ends connect to the PC board. Clearly, heat had something to do with it. Dismantling several of the bases, I was unable to locate any obviously failed components.

When I mentioned this on a local forum, I was immediately rebuked by others for making a non-politically correct comment about these obviously wonderful products. Certainly, even with a lifetime as short as year or two, my bulbs were still saving energy over their lifetimes, but the lifetime was a small fraction of the stated typical life, so I felt ripped off.

I've since migrated to name-brand CFLs, mostly 5 and 6-packs by GE, which are in the $2/bulb price range. And I'm marking the in-service date on each bulb now so I can tell exactly how long they last. I'll know better in a couple years how this turns out.

My point is this: it's important that we understand hype and salesmanship can be used to push "green" products just as successfully as in any other market niche. We tend to be early adopters, perhaps, but quality matters just as much here as in any other area. It's worth taking the time to ask around and to do the math before making an investment.

I have a similar story about home efficiency consultants. A company recently called, offering to do a home energy audit. Personally knowing several local folks (and being an engineer myself) I had a nice conversation with the person and then politely said no. But a friend of mine agreed to having an audit done, and proudly called me afterwards to report the outcome. He asked me what I would have said (I've never been in his house) and just offhand I correctly guessed the top three recommendations. I found the person didn't do a blower door test ("Didn't need to, the answers were obvious") and also didn't have an IR imager, but went right to the list of recommended contractors and how it could all be remedied for less than $5,000 or so. When my friend mentioned paying the guy $500 for the service, I didn't have the heart to tell him his local electric company would have sent someone to do that much for free.

We are in a sensitive area - most homeowners don't understand this stuff at all, and are prone to being taken in. Like they say, there's trouble in River City....

I see you've had the same issues with cheap CFLs as I have.  I have seen very early deaths of all or nearly all the lights I've bought with brands of Feit Electric and Lights of America.  Both are marked "Made in China" (hmmm).  I will not touch either of those brands again.

I have documented the exact failure mode of the LoA 3-way circlites:  as the tube fails, the start circuit is activated continuously to attempt to trigger the arc and the current-sense resistor overheats and fails catastrophically (literally, with a bang).  This is a matter of poor design.  I would not be surprised if the Feit and other cheap brands have design flaws that GE and Sylvania do not.

I always stick with Philips or Osram. I have some 20W cfls from 1995 that are still going strong.

I went through several summers on Las Vegas when the temps went up to unbelievable heights (see photo). I got by in complete comfort using a small fan and a spray bottle of water. I'd spray myself and let the fan dry me off, and the latent heat of evaporation (endothermic) kept me quite cool. My electricity bills were a fraction of my neighbors', who ran A/C 24/7.

We have a four foot diameter portable shop fan with a quarter horsepower motor that we use outside within a hundred feet cord length of outlets and it makes it possible to get a lot of things done outdoors in a fairly pleasant way such as canning veggies or just visiting when the temperature passes ninety or so,which happens quite frequently in July and August.

I rigged up a 4 by 4 foot piece of plastic window screen horizontally at the top of the fan on the outlet side and arrange a garden hose to spray a mist of water on the screen.The air blast breaks of the droplets and sitting in front of this rig is a delightful experience when it's really hot-if the humidity is low you actually get chilled pretty quick and move away.

The water is gravity feed spring water so the cost is very low.So far I haven't eloctrocuted any body but we do not allow small children near the fan if using the water mist.

I haven't had this problem my self but I know of a couple of cases where people added insulation and vapor barriers incorrectly and suffered some severe mildew and rot problems pdq.

I just acquired one of the old satellite tv antennas for hauling it away.It's complete and about ten feed across.I'm thinking that if I line it with the type of sheet metal used to make hot air ducts and apply a shiny aluminum paint ,line her up with the sun and hang a dutch oven at the focal point that she will probably get more than hot enough to cook pdq.I can regulate the heat downward easily by covering part of the reflector,and I can easily fabricate a tracking mount that will keep the whole rig aimed at the sun reasonably well for a couple of hours.Is this a practical idea?

1. Like TGN we have a 40 gallon water tank, an old defunct hot water heater -- stripped half the shell and insulation off, painted that half black, and installed it in what amounts to a cold frame. We have a high efficiency hot water heater the utility helped us get, and when we run water from it, its supply comes from the solar pre-heater and so it does not have to heat up the new water, just maintain it. This cut about 50% of our electric bill. Cost for materials was nothing. Oh -- not quite. A $40 contractor hose connects it to the house -- if you use an eight dollar hose it will MELT.

2. We have painted the house white and much of the roof as well, and in the summer we use a burlap horizontal awning all along the south wall and smaller awnings over the east and west windows, with burlap shades on the inside. 35F temperature differential: 95 outside, 60 inside narrowing to 85-70 by 8 pm, without air conditioning. Cost for materials was about $20 for all the awnings and shades.