How to flatten the curve on energy costs during the Covid-19 lockdown

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With Australian states looking likely to bypass federal government guidelines and head straight to a stage 3 Coronavirus lockdown just in time for the colder months, now is a very good time to start thinking about energy efficiency in the home.

Not only will you have the time to think deeply about this Very Important Subject, but cutting your energy consumption and being smart about how you use electricity in the home remains one of the best ways to reduce your power bills, at a time when every penny counts.

It won’t be easy. There will be bored kids to wrangle (Allegedly, ‘all I ever say’ in my household is “shut the door!”), constantly inhabited homes to heat (or cool, depending on which state you’re in) and all those energy-sucking digital devices working overtime.

But it can be done. And to help make the task easier, we have asked the experts for their top energy saving tips.

Tip 1: Insulate, draught-proof and rug up

Don’t take our word for it. As Luke Menzel, the CEO of Australia’s Energy Efficiency Council says, a few sensible energy efficiency measures can save households “a bucketload” over winter.

“For most homes in colder regions of Australia, heating is by far the biggest slice of the household energy bill pie,” he told One Step. And minimising the need for heating all starts with good insulation.

– Insulate

“Most houses are not well enough insulated for the cold,” Menzel notes, which means heaters have to work harder to keep them warm.

Tim Forcey, who was formerly an energy advisor at Melbourne Energy Institute of the University of Melbourne, agrees.

Forcey, who also co-administrates the Facebook group My Efficient Electric Home, ranked “checking insulation” at number one in his list of top energy saving tips, which he has kindly shared with us on One Step.

“Check your attic insulation (if safe to do so!),” Forcey says. And if it’s not up to scratch, it might be time to engage a qualified and certified professional to bring it up to scratch.

Retro-installation of floor insulation is also a possibility, if your house has leaky old floor boards and easy access to under the house. But again, we recommend using a professional to install any sort of insulation in your home.

– Draught proof

Good old-fashioned draught-proofing is “one of the most cost-effective ways to save energy and feel more comfortable without cranking up the thermostat,” says Menzel.

And Forcey also puts this high on his list.

“Access some draught-proofing supplies and DIY do what you can – that is one idea,” he wrote in a FB post earlier this week.

“Sure, plenty of more serious stuff is going on… I know. But perhaps some of us are looking for a diversion away from Facebook and, as someone said, never let a crisis go to waste.”

In the name of good OH&S, One Step doesn’t recommend taking on any complex draugt-proofin DIY projects if you aren’t experienced in these matters, but there are plenty of helpful and easy-to-do tips in the thread under Forcey’s March 22 post, which could give you a good start.

– Rug up

We’re not talking about putting on a beanie, scarf and polar fleece, although that too is recommended as an obvious way to stay warm inside the home. What we’re talking about here is rugging up your home.

“Another reason people turn up their thermostats unnecessarily is because their house has lots of cold surfaces,” Menzel says.

“In fact, the temperature of the surfaces around you can affect your comfort as much as the air temperatures. So, it’s a good idea to use heavy curtains, install secondary glazing, use rugs on cold floors, and arrange your favourite armchair so it’s not right next to a cold window.

“Making sure your curtains are open during the day can help warm up the house and all the surfaces around you can help warm up the house and all the surfaces,” he adds – “just make sure you close them again at night.”

Tip 2: Get smart about heating

– Switch on the air-con!

“In autumn, as people think about turning on a gas or electric-resistive heater, use the air con instead!” says Forcey.

As he explained in this Conversation article, spending a bit more on a dual-purpose cooling-and-heating device is clearly worth it, with University of Melbourne Energy Institute and Alternative Technology Association, studies showing that using a reverse-cycle air conditioner instead of gas can reduce winter heating costs by up to $A658 a year in a large Melbourne home, or up to $A1,733 per year in a large Canberra home.

“Modern air cons can also do a better job than gas heaters of filtering your air… and we could all use some good air right now,” Forcey said in comments this week to One Step.

But don’t forget to clean the filters, he adds. “I have visited the homes of even CSIRO scientists and they had no idea there was a (very dirty!) filter in that thing.”

– Get your temperature settings right

“Turning the thermostat too high can also be a huge energy and financial drain,” Menzel says.

“Each degree higher on the thermostat can add 10 per cent to your heating bill. The most efficient thermostat setting is 18 degrees Celsius, but most people find 20 degrees a lot more comfortable setting that can still save plenty of energy and money.”

– Think space heating

“If you don’t need to heat your whole house, then zoning (either with ducted heating systems or just closing doors) can also save a lot of energy,” says Menzel.

“If you do have ducted heating, it’s a good idea to check the duct work is leak-free and well insulated. This can sometimes be done with thermal imaging cameras, to save crawling around in dark spaces.”

– Heat yourself and not (just) your home

For those who are home alone, as Dave Southgate explained in this 2017 One Step Off The Grid article, it’s possible to stay warm inside a house using only ultra-low energy personal heating devices drawing less than 100W, even when room air temperatures are low.

You can also read his detailed report on the subject here. A hot water bottle and a rug on the lap wouldn’t t hurt either!

Tip 3: Find (and replace) the energy drains in your home

There are a number of ways you can do this. Forcey recommends starting with an appliance audit, to get a clear picture of how much energy each of your electrical appliances use. This thread on the MEEH Facebook page has some good tips and examples.

But there are also some obvious contenders that could be replaced with confidence and without an audit, such as:

– Outdated and inefficient lighting

“Halogen downlights can be a huge energy waster in the winter as well,” says Menzel. “Aside from their high energy consumption, these lights need to be kept far away from insulation as a fire safety precaution. So, there is always an uninsulated patch of ceiling surrounding halogen downlights, providing an easy escape route for heat through the ceiling.”

To add to that, they run hot. “The heat rising from each downlight can also create a chimney effect and suck warm air out of your house, creating draughts,” Menzel says. “Draughts make you feel cooler, as they strip heat from you constantly – prompting you to turn the thermostat up even higher.”

– The beer fridge

“An old, inefficient beer fridge chugging away in the garage all winter long might be racking up avoidable energy bills,” says Menzel. Don’t panic though, we’re not asking you to get rid of it altogether.

“Turning it off in the cooler months or replacing it with a newer, more efficient model could help save a fair sum of money. That old, inefficient fridge in the garage costs about $300 per year assuming a 15-year-old medium-sized fridge.”

– Any ageing appliances

“Minimum energy standards have meant that appliances have become more and more energy efficient over recent years,” says Menzel.

“A typical reverse cycle heating/cooling system today is around 30-40 per cent more efficient than one from 15 years ago. This also goes for fridges. So, it can actually pay to replace your old appliances with new, high-star rated models, as the energy cost savings will repay the investment and then some.

“The use of plug-in electric resistive heaters should also be avoided. Even oil column heaters aren’t efficient unless you sit very close! If you are buying a new appliance, look for ones with higher star ratings – they may cost a little extra, but the savings will usually be worth it.”

Consumers should note that for some products, the star scale rating that measures an appliance’s energy efficiency has changed over time to accommodate newer higher performing models.

“So, if you have an older appliance at home with a 3-star label stars, don’t be too complacent as this might only rate 2 stars by today’s standards and may not even allowed to be sold under current minimum standard rules,” Menzel says.

“The number below the stars is a calculation of how much electricity the appliance will use each year under typical operating conditions.

“Multiply this number by your electricity tariff to get annual running costs. Note that tariffs can differ significantly between providers as well as different times of the day, so choosing when to use your product can help save you money.”

– The pool pump

The EEC advises homes with pools to reduce the pump timer duration by up to half in winter as a way to make substantial energy savings. But make sure you check with your local pool or spa specialist to ensure you are still meeting all health requirements, says Menzel.

Tip 4: Make energy efficiency a part of everyday life

Like washing hands and other measures of basic hygiene and disease prevention that are coming into their own in the current health crisis, good energy efficiency is something we should all be practising, all the time, and not just in a Covid-29 winter.

And there are plenty more things we could be doing, and advocating for, to embed the efficient use of energy into future everyday life.

“The longer-term issue is the quality of Australia’s building stock,” says Menzel.

“While new homes in Australia have an average energy efficiency rating of 6.1 stars, our existing homes are mostly rubbish, with an average rating of only 1.7 stars.

“Whether it’s from a cost or a carbon perspective, we need to get on with the job of retrofitting Australia’s housing stock.

“Ideally, this would be one of the first priorities once we emerge from the immediate crisis, to drive economic activity and make our homes more comfortable and cheaper to run.”


Post Script:

Here are some more good tips from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Craig Memery, via Twitter…

And there’s also an app for that, which you can sign up to here…

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