Ask the Energy Experts

Each month, REC energy experts Rich Mialki and Louis O'Berry will provide answers to common questions. Check back each month for a new tip from Paul, Rich and Louis.

Q. By using a space heater, do we end up paying more for electricity?

A. Many people use space heaters to stay warm. The assumption is that space heating is more energy efficient (hence, more economical) than cranking up the furnace. But while space heaters can sometimes be a practical heating solution, many people who use them end up inflating their heating bills. The reason: space heaters are often used for "comfort heat" on top of central heating systems and to solve heating inadequacies that can be resolved in more cost-effective ways. So when does using space heaters make sense?

According to the Department of Energy, space heaters "can be less expensive to use if you only want to heat one room or supplement inadequate heating in one room." So it might make sense to turn down the thermostat and use a space heater to just heat one small area. (Of course you'll want to turn off the space heater when you're not in the space it's heating.) Space heaters are not, however, more cost-effective than central heating systems when they are used beyond one or two small areas in a home or business.

Q. As days get shorter, what type of lights should we use to save money on our electric bill?

A. There are more lighting choices available on store shelves than ever before. Even with all the new choices, it's still simple - look for the ENERGY STAR label. ENERGY STAR means high quality and performance. If you haven't already done so, make the switch to LED bulbs. Replacing your home's five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with models that have earned the ENERGY STAR rating, you can save $75 each year.

Q. Will caulking around windows and doors and installing foam outlet gaskets help?

A. It is the drafts we don't see or feel that usually cause the most energy loss. Those small drafts you feel at the windows, doors and plugs can cause comfort issues but in reality, they make up a very small percentage of the actual air infiltration into and out of your home. The big leaks are at the top and bottom of the home. It's called Stack Effect. Seal all the holes in the attic floor and then in the lowest level, whether it is the floor above a crawl space or your basement walls.

Q. We have window A/C units, but we want to save energy. Do you have any tips?

A. This is a common question that many people struggle with. When it gets hot you want to get cool. Carefully using your window air conditioning units can be less expensive to operate than running a large central air conditioning unit. Room air conditioning units are great for cooling smaller areas instead of the entire home. Only cool the room or area when you are using it. Turn off the units in the vacant rooms. Close off rooms that are not being used to keep the cool air in the area you are in. Set the temperature for 78 or higher. Close the outdoor air vent so that you are recirculating the indoor air. Seal tightly around the window unit and seal the gap between the two window sashes. On double-hung windows, be certain the upper sash stays up and closed tight in the frame.

Q. What type of air filters should I be using??

A. Filters are available in a variety of types and efficiencies, rated by a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV). MERV, a method developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, tests filter effectiveness. We recommend that you choose a filter with a MERV rating no higher than 8. A filter with a MERV rating higher than 8 will restrict airflow in most systems. If the filter you purchase is not rated, we recommend you buy a basic $2 to $3 pleated filter. While most types of filters must be replaced, some filters are reusable. Your heating system needs to work as efficiently as possible to keep you warm and your loved ones feeling snuggly, and a clean air filter helps it do just that. Check your filters every month and change or clean as needed.

Q. If we keep our pool pump running 24 hours a day, how much is that costing me?

A. Each pool is equipped with an energy guzzler: the pump. The bigger the pump, the higher the power bill. Make sure your pool uses the smallest pump possible. A knowledgeable pool supply or service firm can help choose a proper pump for your pool, taking into consideration its size, filter and piping. Greater savings can come from decreasing pump operation time, no matter the pump size. Keep drains clear of debris, or your pump will work harder to circulate water. Also, find a proper balance for backwashing the filter. Too much backwashing - the process of filtering and disposing of dirty water - wastes water, while too little strains the pump. Try running your pump for six to eight hours or less a day, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Energy's EnergySavers.gov website. If the cleanliness is not to your liking, increase filtration time by 30-minute increments until you are satisfied. If six hours works well, try decreasing filtration time to find a balance with energy efficiency. To keep debris down without running your pump overtime, use a skimmer to manually clean the water. Also, try using a timer to run your filter for several short periods during the day rather than allowing debris to pile up after one long continuous filtration.

Q. I noticed a draft coming from my overhead attic door. What can I do?

A. Children running in and out of the house may hear a common warning: "Don't leave the door open - you’ll let the air out!" But how many adults do the same thing without realizing it? While you may not leave your front door open, air leaks in the attic let valuable air in - and out - of your home. In the attic, there are many small areas where air may come in. Before insulating, seal any air leaks and make roof and other necessary repairs. Attic insulation is essential to help keep warm air inside in the winter and hot air from heating your living spaces in the summer. If you have at least 6 inches of insulation and add 6 more inches you can save 5 percent on energy costs. Also remember to insulate and air seal your attic access door. Consider insulating the crawlspace or an unfinished basement of your home as well to maximize your efficiency savings.

Q. Why is my house so dry in the winter? I was told it was from my furnace/heat pump.

A. Your heating, ventilation and air conditioning system may add to the problem but the real cause is drafts. Outdoor air is getting into your home from the air leaks in your home's shell and ducts. The cold outside air is very dry and anything that increases the amount of outside air that enters your home contributes to indoor dryness.

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