Energy Budget Killers

By Phil Ross - Indiana Natural Gas Corporation

Energy bills are a concern for our customers. Helping our customers control their energy costs is a concern of ours. There are many sources of information on how energy costs can be lowered through improvements to a home or building. However, there are some major issues related to energy costs that we would like to highlight. These are not minor issues that can save a customer a few dollars on their energy bill. These issues are energy budget killers that are costing some consumers hundreds of dollars, or more, every year.

Our gas company responds to many customers who become concerned when they receive a bill showing a higher than normal usage of natural gas. We find that sometimes people think they are doing everything they can to control their energy bills but they've missed an "energy budget killer" that's going on right under their noses. Many times it's something they know about, but they do not understand the magnitude of the cost. Here are some of the worst "Energy Budget Killers" we at Indiana Natural Gas see on a regular basis.

Heating an unoccupied building or garage

Homes that are larger than needed

Running a pool heater

Using outdated heating equipment

Poor home maintenance

Older homes

These issues can make the difference between a customer receiving a modest bill and an enormous bill. Consumers would be well served to think about these issues and make sure they don't have an "energy budget killer" lurking around their home.

Heating Garages and Outbuildings:

One of the most overlooked ways to control high energy costs is to consider where you are using energy and simply eliminate some of those uses.

For example, it has become somewhat common for homeowners to heat garages and outbuildings in the winter. It is possible to reduce the cost of heating these buildings by increasing insulation and putting in higher efficiency equipment, but the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to reduce this energy expense is to simply turn off the heat in unoccupied buildings. In our experience a homeowner can reduce their total gas consumption, sometimes drastically, by taking this simple step. The heating equipment can be turned on when the building is occupied and turned off otherwise. The savings can be huge. We have seen cases where customers have cut their gas bills in half by turning off the heat in an outbuilding that was attached to their home's gas meter. In every case, customers are aware they are heating these areas but have no idea how much it is costing them. It is much cheaper to only heat these areas when they are being used.

For example, I have a barn behind my house with a workshop in one side and a garage in the other. I only use heat in the barn when I am in the barn. If I'm out there 65 hours in a month during the winter, I'll end up spending about $25 that month to heat the barn. However, if I left the heat on 24 hours a day for the whole month, the cost would be well over $250. That would definitely kill my energy budget!

Homes that are larger than needed:

Many people consider downsizing at some point during their lives. There are reasons to consider moving into a smaller home and reasons not to. I would not presume to try to make this very difficult decision for anyone. However, I would point out the obvious. There are consequences to living in a home that is larger than needed. One of these is that energy bills will be higher than they would be in a smaller home. All other things being equal, bigger homes use more energy to heat and cool than smaller homes.

Can this be controlled? Many people block off rooms in their homes or turn off vents to certain areas to avoid heating areas they won't be using. While this might save a small amount of energy, it is really not very effective. Interior walls and floors are not insulated so conditioned air will tend to go into these areas anyway. Vents are designed to control the amount of air leaving a duct, not stop it completely. A closed vent lets a quite a bit of air through. If there is an air return duct in the room that is blocked off it is going to be bringing unconditioned air back to the furnace constantly. It may be possible to reduce your bills some by blocking areas of your home off, but it probably won't reduce your bill by as much as you think it might. Having a home that is too large for your needs can be an energy budget killer. Closing half of your home's rooms off will not cut your energy bills in half.

Pool Heaters:

Pool Heaters use a lot of gas. We have received many calls from customers over the years who have put in pool heaters and are absolutely shocked when they get their first gas bill after installing it. Most residential pool heaters are rated at about 250,000 BTU/hr. That means they will use about $2.50 worth of natural gas every hour the burner is on. Typically we see costs of anywhere from $200 per month in the summer months to $600 per month in the spring or fall to keep a modest sized swimming pool heated. Winter bills can run over $1000 per month. To some people, this is an acceptable cost. Swimming pools can be enjoyable and some customers want to use them as many months as possible. However, it is an expensive proposition, and can definitely kill your energy budget.

Be aware that you must call the gas company if you are going to install a pool heater. You will probably exceed the rated capacity of your gas meter if you add one to your home. We may need to upgrade your home to a larger gas meter to accommodate the pool heater.

Using Old Equipment:

Gas fired heating equipment has become much more efficient over the last several years. You can think of efficiency as a measurement of the amount of energy a piece of equipment wastes when it is running. For instance, an 80% efficient furnace wastes 20% of the energy you buy to put through it. A 92% efficient furnace only wastes 8% of the energy you pay for. You can approximate your savings by replacing your old heating equipment with new by comparing these numbers. In this example, you could roughly estimate a savings of 12% by replacing an 80% efficient furnace with a new high efficiency unit rated at 92%.

However, in my personal experience the savings can by much more. When I purchased my current home, it had a 250,000 BTU furnace that was 40 years old and had been rated in 1960 at 80% efficiency. Due to the age and condition of the furnace, my best estimate is that it was actually only about 60% efficient. Further, it was too large for the house. That big old furnace was definitely an energy budget killer. When replaced with a more efficient 100,000 BTU model, bills were reduced drastically.

The 250,000 BTU furnace that was limping along at 60% efficiency wasted 100,000 BTU's per hour. That's $1 per hour of waste for every hour the burner is on. This is a fairly extreme case but there are other customers with similar situations. They would be wise to consider replacing their old heating equipment immediately.

Poor home maintenance:

Some home maintenance problems can more than double your energy costs. Something we've run into many times over the years is ductwork under a home that has either come apart or rusted through. If the ductwork comes apart, the heat just blows out under the house. This makes the house almost impossible to heat and the resulting energy bills can be huge.

Another problem we've seen many times, which is somewhat less critical, is leaking hot water. If a water heater or hot water pipes develop a leak it will cause the water heater to run a lot more than it should. Homeowners that have these problems can expect a larger energy bill and a higher water bill.

Other maintenance problems that can lead to high energy bills are often obvious. Sometimes people just don't stop and think about how much a broken window or a missing storm door will add to their winter heating and summer cooling bills. It is important to stay on top of these things and get them corrected to avoid killing your energy budget.

Older homes:

Like many of our customers, I live in an older home. My home was built in 1918. It's a well-built old house and I think it has a lot of good years left in it. Even though the previous owners and I have done a lot over the years to make the house more energy efficient, it will always cost more to heat and cool it than what it would cost to heat and cool a new home that is the same size or even a bit larger. In fact, for a home in the 2500 square foot range it can cost an extra $100 per month for energy to live in an old home compared to a new home. This is a good rough estimate if some improvements have been made to the old home over the years. If these improvements, like thermo-pane windows, attic insulation, new heating equipment, upgraded thresholds, caulking, storm doors, etc., have not been made then it can cost much, much more for utilities. Where we see this all too often is in older rental housing. Some of this housing is fairly inexpensive to rent but the utility bills can be beyond the renter's ability to pay. If you own older rental housing, please take a hard look at the utility bills your tenants are getting. This is critically important. An older home will never be as inexpensive to heat and cool as a well-built new home, but the gap can be narrowed considerably if upgrades are made.

If you take a few moments to think about these issues as they relate to your situation you may find a way to save yourself some money. If you have questions about energy savings, or you'd like to let me know about an "energy budget killer" you've found, please let me know.

About the Author - Phil Ross is General Manager of Indiana Natural Gas Corporation. He has worked in the natural gas industry since 1994. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from GMI (Kettering University) and is the past Chairman of The Indiana Gas Association. He makes his home in Orleans, Indiana with his wife and their three sons.