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Too Late to Beat the Heat?

Some homeowners stay cool while saving money.

While April 15 is four months past, thousands of homeowners are volunteering for an audit.

This isn’t the friendly neighborhood audit performed by the hardworking men and women at the IRS. Instead, it’s a free, 10-minute home energy audit through the American Homeowners Foundation.

“We’ve had thousands and thousands of people take it since November,” said Bruce Hahn, president of the Arlington-based independent non-profit that helps homeowners protect what is usually people’s greatest investment.

“From an economic standpoint, with the rapid increase of energy costs, it’s more important than ever for homeowners to reduce those expenses,” said Hahn.

The home audit guides homeowners from room to room in a 25-part inspection, checking features like air registers, insulation, thermostats, fireplaces, appliances and light bulbs.

EVEN THOUGH SOME of the easiest home energy conservation efforts often start and stop with what Hahn calls “lifestyle” changes, they also show up in everything from major remodeling decisions to changing a light bulb.

In the summer, the big target is usually the air conditioner. More than half of a typical home’s energy costs are dedicated to cooling and heating expenses, said Karl Neddenien, a spokesperson with Dominion Virginia Power.

A homeowner’s electrical bill can be shaved roughly 10 percent with a thermometer adjustment of three degrees. “Every higher degree is a savings of about three percent,” said Neddenien. “We recommend setting the thermometer three degrees higher if they can comfortably do that.”

An air conditioner’s energy efficiency can also be improved through the use of ceiling fans, a popular do-it-yourself addition during warm summer months. “I suspect a lot of people are buying them,” said Hahn, who points out they are also useful in the winter to gently push warm air downwards.

Fans are very effective in multi-level homes, particularly centrally cooled townhouses, where the bottom level is often too cool and the top level is too warm.

Simple maintenance of the system is also helpful. Some manufacturers recommend that homeowners replace their system’s air filters each month during the summer.

OTHER DECISIONS ABOUT when and how appliances are used could translate into addition savings.

“If you can put off using your dishwasher and washer until after dark, it helps avoid adding more heat in the house when it’s already hot,” said Neddenien. “It helps us, too because it doesn’t put us as close to the limit.”

Similarly, energy companies recommend efficient use of lights, which generate a lot of heat. Keeping them off during the day results in more modest savings. Also, using one bulb with a higher wattage instead of two or more lower-wattage bulbs is more efficient.

During blazing hot temperatures last week, power usage shattered last year’s record, said Neddenien.

For the first time, the company’s 2.3 million customers in northern and central Virginia and in northern North Carolina used more than 19,000 megawatts during a peak hour on Aug. 2. The record broke again the next day. The average use is between 12 and 14 megawatts.

THE REMODELING INDUSTRY has also seen a greater demand for greener, more energy efficient building techniques and technologies, according to Chris Landis, president of the region’s National Association of Remolding Industry.

“We’ve seen a lot more demand for in-line heaters in place of hot water heaters,” said Landis.

The in-line heaters, popular in Europe, heat the water as needed, said Landis. “They cost more, but the payback only takes a year or two.”

John Schmitt of Kingston Custom Builders, which is based in Fairfax Station, said customers are often opting for features with better energy ratings, such as higher-grade insulation.

“But we usually get requests [for an upgrade in insulation] in winter when you can feel the cold air coming in,” said Schmitt, who added that the savings carry over into the summer, too.

Schmitt thinks people often “miss the boat” when it comes to the benefits of weather stripping entry doors, back doors and garage doors. “That really saves energy,” he said.

More and more homeowners recognize the value of energy-efficiency ratings, said Landis. He said he rarely comes across a customer in the market for a new heat pump who isn’t familiar with the “SEER” rating, or the seasonal energy efficiency ratio that measures how efficiently a residential central cooling system will operate.

Federal law increased the minimum rating this year from 10 to 13. According to builders and contractors, homeowners often pay for higher-rated systems. “Customers would rather spend more money on a higher-end product if they see a return on that investment,” said Schmitt.

NARI is considering the addition of a green category to its contractor of the year awards to help bring greater recognition to environmental friendly projects, said Landis.