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SIREN Energy Showdown 2010

SIREN’s Energy Showdown contest awarded prizes to participants who achieved the greatest percentage reduction in their electricity bills. Collectively, more than 11.5 Megawatt Hours of electricity were saved by the Energy Showdown contestants. Click here to view the wrap-up presentation, but to really learn how they did it, keep on reading.

GRAND PRIZE WINNERS: Woodie & Pam Bessler
Total Energy Reduction for the year was 46.28%

Pam and Woodie won our second quarter prize as well as our grand prize, a 1kW PV solar system. Read Woodie’s comments below and watch for the article in the Down to Earth section of the Herald Times.

To begin with, our philosophy for the contest was doing stuff that could allow us to make permanent reductions in our net energy, and not just a shift from one type to another, or a temporary “suffer through” improvement. On the other hand, my wife had expressed concern about her and the children “FREEZING in the DARK”, so I also set out to make fundamental changes that would still be acceptable/tolerable (to avoid a mutiny). Focusing on WASTE was my first plan, since it is the least painful usage to give up.

Long before the contest we have been trying to reduce our utility/energy use (Gas, Electric, Water, Gasoline) by using energy efficient CFL’s, front-loading energy efficient washer and dryer, not leaving appliances on when not in use, etc. As a continuation of that, near the middle of 2009 we replaced the fridge that came with the house with a new Energy Star model. Overall we use only about 66% of the electricity used by the typical Indiana home, so when the contest opportunity came along, we weren’t sure we could do enough to compete, but the contest fostered some new ideas.

Before the contest started we (I) began prepping the family by warning about how “Things are going to be different next month!”.

After Jan. 1, I began nagging about lights being left on and how “if you’re not in a room, the power and lights must be off”. Not always  effective with 7 year-olds. So then I tried putting in some LED lights that were even lower consumption than the CFL’s. I also installed some cut-off-switches that automatically shut off unattended loads. These are especially great for bathroom fans and hall lights. I separated four bathroom lights that had been all on one switch into two switches, so when you didn’t need the extra light, you could turn on only one. All these things helped cut down on the amount of lights left on by the twins. 

I started showering only with “day-lighting” to eliminate the lights at that time. I cleaned the coils of the Refrigerator and changed out the Furnace filter. We have also used a Kill-A-Watt meter to see where we were using our electricity. This data allowed us to prioritize changes. I was surprised to find out how much energy gets wasted by the phantom power drawn by things that use power even when you think they are off. Based on this we started unplugging or using power-strips, etc. to reduce these loads.

After about 20% reductions in Jan. and Feb. I was encouraged, but was not doing as well as I had wanted to. More digging revealed that our furnace fan alone draws about 450 watts, so I installed an old “green plug” device to help reduce the fan draw (we had used it years ago with an old style refrigerator with good success). As Spring began we were bouncing between heating at night and even some cooling in the day, so I revised the programmable thermostat to try to avoid these spikes, and instead get more passive heat with sunlight through windows during the day and free cooling with open windows at night.  We got to 40% in March. In the Spring, the cooler weather helped us too. We could use fans instead of A/C until the humidity got too high. Then to get the most from our cooling system we had the Central A/C tuned up, and began using a window unit when we could -to do some zoned cooling. We had done this last year too in the largest room in the house with some success. For the last couple of years we have used a dehumidifier too, because warmer air can still be more comfortable when it has lower humidity, and the dehumidifier uses less energy than the central A/C. Another thing that helped us this year was fixing the downspouts last Fall, to send the rain water farther from the house, so it wouldn’t get pumped out by the sump-pump, or accumulate in the crawl space and add to the house humidity. Before we opened our pool for the year, we substantially cut back on the need to pump off the Spring rains that accumulate on the pool-cover by instead starting a syphoning action rather than the way we use to do it with a 360 watt pump! I also built a custom, pool-filter-pump-timer to duty-cycle the 220V pump filter to reduce it’s net consumption. We also changed out the pool filter to make sure it is working with less back-pressure (load). The pool has the advantage of providing an alternative to using A/C to cool off with too.

Other thoughts we’ve had, we are still cooking with an electric range (and my wife actually would prefer gas), but I’m not really sure if it will make much difference, and getting a gas line installed might take too much money and time away from sealing leaks in the attic and crawl-space. I’m hoping the Blue-line Power Cost Monitor might give me a way to see if the stove change would actually make a difference. I also bought a Solar Oven at MREA, that may also cut down on our cooking-electricity usage.

To boil it down to a few “tips”, I would say:

1.) Look for and eliminate waste first (least painful).
2.) Improve efficiency (lighting, appliances, etc.)
3.) Figure out new ways to get an acceptable outcome with less energy (like the syphoning example above, or air-drying your clothes).
4.) Make A/C cooling more efficient by reducing humidity with a smaller auxiliary unit.


Other Notable Energy Heroes:
Q1 Winner: Meagan Eller
Total Energy Reduction for the year was 21.98%

Read Meagan’s post here to learn the secrets to her success.

Last year, we participated in the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network’s (SIREN) Energy Challenge. The goal was to reduce electric energy usage.

Each month, I entered our current electric usage and the previous year’s data into a spreadsheet. The reductions were based on an individual household’s consumption, so the percentage reduction was calculated and a winner was declared each quarter. There were quarterly prizes.

We actually won the first quarter, with the largest percentage reduction of all the participants. We received a free solar assessment and a Kill-a-Watt meter as our prizes. Our energy use actually increased slightly during the summer due to the hotter temperatures, but we were back in the game for the 4th quarter. While we didn’t win, we did manage to reduce our electricity consumption by an average 22% in 2010 compared to 2009.

Tonight, at SIREN’s monthly meeting, they had a special presentation where they asked the quarterly winners to talk briefly about how they accomplished their energy reductions. The winner of the contest was announced – a family that saved an average 46%!

Many of the strategies were similar amongst the three of us who spoke (the same household won the 3rd and 4th quarters). What everyone found amazing in our story was that most of the major things we have done to reduce our energy consumption were made prior to 2009. We saved 22% the hard way, yet we didn’t go to the extremes that one family did.

Are you wondering what the others did?

The winning family (2 parents, 7 year old twins) installed timers on everything. They raised the temperature on their central air conditioning to 85º, but used 2 window units (one in the main living area during the day and one in the kids’ bedroom at night) which actually reduced the humidity more so that they were comfortable with the higher temperature. They cycled their pool pump on and off throughout the day rather than leaving it on all the time. They hung laundry out to dry. And so on.

The 3rd/4th quarter winners really went to extremes to reduce their consumption, using a camp shower all summer so they could turn their water heater off, not using air conditioning, setting their thermostat extremely low in winter (58º!). I don’t remember all the things they did, but I am not willing to go to those extremes.

So what did we do?

  • Well, after buying our house in December 2003, we noticed that the den and some other rooms were very drafty. In February and March of 2004 we replaced the original single pane windows with double pane windows. We could feel the difference in the comfort level immediately and our gas bill went down right away.
  • We have replaced almost every appliance in the house, which, with the exception of the 2002 water heater, dated to 1986. (2004: dishwasher and stove, 2006: washer and dryer, 2009: refrigerator).
  • We decommissioned a chest freezer that we were underutilizing in early 2009.
  • In 2006 we installed extra insulation in the attics.
  • Chris has the computer programmed to automatically shut down at night.
  • We turn the power strip that our stereo equipment is plugged in to off when it’s not in use.
  • We’ve replaced the lightbulbs in the house with CFLs and have actually bought our first LED.
  • We set the air conditioning between 78º and 80º in the summer and the furnace to 68º to 70º during the winter. When we can, we open windows and run the ceiling fans Chris installed in 2006.
  • I hang laundry on the line outside, and occasionally in the basement, although not as often as I should. (Dryers use crazy amounts of electricity.)

Notice that the big things were all before 2009, except the refrigerator (which was probably responsible for much of our impressive savings) and the old freezer (which only effected January through March). Sometimes it is the little things, the habits we change. What’s that saying? A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step? Well, energy reduction starts with a single switch (off).

We still have work to do. We are currently saving for a new HVAC system, which will do incredible things to reduce both electricity and gas (furnace and water heater are gas). We would love to install solar panels. We may replace more CFLs with LEDs as they burn out, although they aren’t necessarily what we want everywhere. A big benefit there is that LEDs don’t have mercury, so we don’t have to worry about disposal. I need to try to hang laundry out more so we use the dryer less. (I did mention dryers are energy hogs, didn’t I? Next time you run yours, go look at your meter spin. It will sicken you.)


Q3 and Q4 Winners: William Emigh and Maggie Sullivan
Total Energy Reduction for the year was 34.23%

Will and Maggie were able to make some very impressive reductions, even though they had already reduced their energy consumption well below that of the average household. Here are a few of their secrets.

Will’s response:

Our blog has a couple of posts about what we’ve done (especially in June): 07/11/the-3-kwh-challenge/ 10/31/powering-down/

In short, we replaced an inefficient refrigerator, avoid using a
clothes dryer, and use passive heating and cooling as much as
possible.  During June, we also shut off the water heater and used a
solar camp shower instead, but that ended up being too much of a
hassle, so we’re back to normal there.  As a longer process, we’ve
used a Kill-A-Watt on almost everything in the house to make sure that
we’re cutting back or replacing the right things.

Maggie’s Response:
As Will said (and we talked about quite a bit in our blog), we really decided to go whole hog in June when the weather was just about perfect for avoiding both heating and air conditioning.  We took some steps that most people wouldn’t consider (e.g. shutting off the water heater and air conditioner).  However, anyone can achieve pretty significant reductions in their energy bill following these four guidelines:

1. Heat/cool your house passively as much as possible.  It amazes me how often people use their air conditioners when it’s cool outside; you can reduce your usage a lot just by paying attention to the daily cycle of air temperature changes.  When it’s cool at night, shut off the A/C and open the windows.  Then in the morning, close the windows, close the blinds, and your A/C won’t need to kick in until mid-afternoon.  Obviously, the reverse is true in the winter (open blinds during the day to let in sunlight; close blinds at night to keep warm air inside the house).

2. Ditch as many heating/cooling devices as you can (or replace with more energy efficient options).  We didn’t think that replacing our fridge would make that much of a difference but our new fridge uses 80% less electricity!  Neither of us is big into hair dryers, electric blankets, or dishwashers with electric “dry” cycles but we became more conscious about how much electricity our clothes dryer and crock pot use.  After our June experiment got us down to 2 kWhr/day, it seemed wrong to run a clothes dryer that uses 4 kWhr for one load!  (I also have been trying to use the solar cooker in place of the crock pot when possible although admittedly I’ve also been taking advantage of our gas stovetop.)

3. Monitor your energy usage.  By noting down the meter reading every evening and monitoring all the appliances in our house over a period of three months using the killowatt, we have been able to develop a much clearer understanding of where our electricity is being used.  This has helped us eliminate some phantom usage that wasn’t benefiting us at all and has also given us a much better appreciation for how much it “costs” to run each appliance.  Anything we don’t need is put on a power strip to avoid phantom draws and we’ve gotten much more conscious about how our daily choices affect our electric bill.

4. Start with a small house that has good solar positioning.  We got lucky on this one!  Our house is only about 1300 square feet and it is situated with lots of windows facing south with a large overhang as well as windows set up to promote good air flow so it has been pretty ideal for passive heating and cooling.  Someone with a 3,000 square foot house is going to have a hard time comparing with ours.

Honorable Mention:  Lisa Thomassen and Family
Total Energy Reduction for the year was 27.01%

We’ve managed our reductions without buying any new appliances.

So we still have our 12 year old refrigerator (we clean the coils regularly), our 12 year old TVs and computers, and so forth. We’ve purchased compact fluorescent light bulbs, but that’s it — no fancy appliances or meters for us.

We don’t drive a new Prius. Instead we have a ’79 Hondamatic civic. It’s actually green.


For more great energy-saving tips, check out the Green America website and fore even more detailed tips, check out the Coop America Newsletter.

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