Just for fun, I recently Googled the phrase “energy-saving tips.” I dove deep — all the way to page 7 of the Google results. My research was profoundly discouraging.
Since then, is there any possibility that the quality of online advice improved? Not a chance.
Evidently, there is a secret stupid tips network (or stupid tips underground) that shares bad advice. Every now and then, some utility executive or government employee comes up with a new stupid tip, and (worried that the idea might not get the recognition it deserves) immediately sends out a mass e-mail to every member of the stupid tips network, so that the tip can be published widely.
Virtually every list of energy-saving tips on the Web includes some bad advice. The bad advice is so pervasive that I have decided to catalog these tips by category — to create a taxonomy of stupid tips.
The Top Ten List of stupid energy tips
Here’s my top ten list — common tips that show up repeatedly.
1. Fill your half-empty refrigerator or freezer with plastic bottles filled with water. This stupid tip will never save you enough energy to show up on your electric bill. Nevertheless, the advice is provided by the California Energy Commission, an electric utility called NV Energy, Avista Utilities, Wisconsin Public Service, Georgia Natural Gas, an electric utility called National Grid, Connecticut Light & Power, EnergyRight Solutions, and many others.
2. Clean the dust off your refrigerator’s heat-exchange coils. As I’ve noted before, researchers haven’t been able to measure any energy savings resulting from this measure. But a lack of data hasn’t stopped the following sources from advising homeowners to get out the vacuum cleaner: NV Energy, Connecticut Light & Power, and EnergyRight Solutions.
3. Schedule an annual furnace tune-up. As Michael Blasnik has shown, there is no evidence to support the idea that the cost of an annual furnace tune-up can ever be recouped by energy savings. This tip (often referred to as the “make-work-for-HVAC-techs” tip) is trumpeted by an electric utility called WE Energies, Wisconsin Public Service, a New Mexico electric utility called PNM, EnergyRight Solutions, and a utility named Alliant Energy.
5. To reduce the rate of air leakage in your home, start by caulking around windows. Actually, the big leaks are in your attic and basement, not around your windows. That doesn’t stop many sources from offering the “caulk your windows” advice. Among the guilty are the California Energy Commission, NV Energy, WE Energies, the California Natural Resources Agency, Virginia Energy Sense, and a utility called NSTAR Electric & Gas. (The tip from NSTAR even includes a definition of the word “weatherize.” The site advises, “Weatherize your home by caulking and weather-stripping all doors and windows.”)
6. Install foam gaskets under your electrical outlet covers. There are only two problems with the advice: electrical outlets aren’t a major air leakage point, and gaskets don’t stop air leaks at this location. These two small problems don’t prevent the following sources from providing the tip: the California Energy Commission, a gas utility called PSNC Energy, Alliant Energy, and CNN.
7. Run your ceiling fans backwards during the winter. No researcher has ever been able to show that this practice saves energy. This tip may even make you uncomfortable enough to turn up the thermostat, raising your energy bills. But the advice is provided by Duke Energy, Alabama Power, an electric utility called Xcel Energy, and a Sustainability blog on the University of Illinois at Chicago web site.
8. Run your air conditioner and ceiling fans simultaneously. According to a 1996 paper (“Are Energy Savings Due to Ceiling Fans Just Hot Air?”) by P. James, Jeffrey Sonne, R. Vieira, Danny Parker, and M. Anello, “Data from 386 surveyed Central Florida households suggests that although fans are used an average of 13.4 hours per day, no statistically valid difference can be observed in thermostat settings between households using fans and those without them.” In other words, homeowners who run their ceiling fans and air conditioners simultaneously would be better off if they turned off their ceiling fans. This bad advice is provided by WE Energies and a utility called PSE&G.
9. Locate your air conditioner condenser in the shade to keep it cool. This myth was debunked many years ago by researchers at the Florida Solar Energy Center. Yet it still keeps cropping up, most recently in advice provided by PSNC Energy.
10. During the winter, close your curtains at night to save energy. When this advice is repeated, the authors usually fail to mention that you need a way to stop air from flowing between the curtain and the window — or else convection currents will sabotage your efforts to save energy. This incomplete tip is provided by many sources, including Connecticut Light & Power and the website of the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors.
REAL ENERGY-SAVING TIPS
After you’ve read the bad advice, you may be ready for some good advice. Here it is. 1. Seal air leaks in your attic and your basement. To learn more, see Air Sealing an Attic and Air-Sealing a Basement.2. Add insulation to your attic if the insulation is thin.3. Insulate your walls if they are uninsulated. (If you have a wood-framed house, you probably want to insulate your walls with dense-packed cellulose.)4. Seal the seams of any ducts located outside the thermal envelope of your home, and add duct insulation if the ducts are poorly insulated.5. Swap your incandescent bulbs for CFLs or LEDs.6. If your refrigerator, furnace, or air conditioner is old, swap it for a new, high-efficiency appliance. Make sure your furnace blower isn’t on all the time. (It should be set to “auto,” not “on.”)7. If your house has single-pane windows and you live in a cold climate, install low-e exterior storm windows.8. If you live in a cold climate and you heat with fuel oil, consider installing a ductless minisplit heat pump in your living room.9. If you live somewhere with high electricity rates and decent PV incentives, install a PV system.10. Set back the thermostat when you’re not home or when you are asleep. 11. Unplug second refrigerators and freezers.
Tips which may save energy but which cost way too much to implement
A tip fails the cost-effectiveness test if implementing the tip costs more than will ever be saved by lower energy bills. Here are four tips in that category:
Install a backyard wind turbine. This energy-saving tip came from My San Antonio magazine.
Install a ground-source heat pump. This energy-saving tip came from U.S. News & World Report.
Install a solar water heating system. This energy-saving tip came from Duke Energy.
Install replacement windows. This energy-saving tip came from NV Energy.
Distractions intended to keep you busy rather than save energy
After the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in 1945, the U.S. government admitted that many of the war-time campaigns urging Americans to gather rags and steel cans for recycling were launched to give citizens a psychological boost rather than because of shortages of rags or steel. Many energy-saving tips have this same flavor: they are intended to keep homeowners busy — too busy to read the meter or pay attention to their actual energy bills.
The tips in this category usually focus on cooking. The basic problem with tips that save cooking energy is that cooking represents only 4% of U.S. residential energy use. So even if you can find a way to save 10% of the energy used for cooking, you will only save less than 1/2 of 1% of your residential energy use.
Always make sure that you have a lid on your pot when you’re cooking. This tip comes from an electric utility called Reliant, the city of Tallahassee, Florida, the city of Richland, Washington, and Alliant Energy.
Cook with copper-bottomed pans. This tip causes me to shake my head in wonder. It comes from Duke Energy.
If you read enough lists of energy-saving tips, pretty soon you will realize that some tips directly contradict other tips.
Close off heating registers in unused rooms — no, wait: leave them open. According to the city of Tallahassee, “Closing off rooms or registers will not save money and may lead to problems.” But Terry Webster from the Minnesota Office of Energy Security offers this energy-saving tip: “Close registers in unused rooms.”
Use a space heater — no, wait: never use space heaters. According to “Energy-Saving Tips” from TXU Energy, “Use Space Heaters. … There are days when you spend most of your time in one or two rooms. That’s when you should consider lowering your thermostat and using a space heater.” But another list — “101 Ways to Save Energy,” a document on an Alliant Energy web page — advises, “Avoid using space heaters, including electric, kerosene or propane models. Not only are they expensive to operate, they’re also very dangerous.”
How good are utility executives at quantifying the energy savings that homeowners can expect by implementing their recommendations? They are really, really bad.
Window replacement. According to NV Energy, replacing “inefficient single-pane windows with energy efficient multi-pane, thermally-broken, vinyl-framed windows,” will “save you another 25% on your monthly bill.” According to Michael Blasnik, the saving in heating energy use that accrues from window replacement in cold climates is on the order of 1% to 4%. In a cooling-dominated climate like Nevada, electricity savings will vary greatly depending on many factors, including how shaded the windows are; but it is highly unlikely that electricity savings will approach 25%.
Choose the right sized pot when you are cooking. According to Wisconsin Public Service, “Just by using the right size pot on a burner, you can save about $36 a year if you have an electric range, or $18 a year with a gas stove.” Or perhaps 48 cents.
Caulk and weatherstripping your doors and windows. According to Virginia Energy Sense, this simple measure “can cut your energy bill by as much as 30%!” Or maybe 1%.
Annual furnace tune-ups. According to Alliant Energy, “A $50-100 annual tune-up can help reduce your heating costs by up to five percent.” Or maybe 0%.
Locating your air conditioner in the shade. According to PSNC Energy, this simple measure can increase the efficiency of your air conditioner by 10%. Or not.
Dangerous or counterproductive advice
This is a fun category: it consists of advice that can make things worse.
Open the vents on your crawl space during the summer. If you follow this advice, you will allow humid outdoor air to enter your crawl space. The humidity is likely to condense on cold surfaces, which can lead to mold or rot. It’s hard to imagine why this suggestion is on anyone’s list of “energy-saving tips,” but it is. It appears on lists posted by an electric utility called Dominion and Alabama Power.
Use a humidifier. This strange energy-saving tip can get you into trouble very fast, since the use of humidifiers is associated with sheathing rot. Humidifiers are promoted as a good way to save energy by Georgia Natural Gas and Black Hills Power.
Add more attic ventilation. Unfortunately, homes that perform well without attic ventilation sometimes develop problems when vents are added. But some electric utilities are under the mistaken impression that adding attic ventilation can lower cooling bills, even though no researcher has ever been able to measure such savings. In spite of the lack of data, this measure is recommended by Reliant, PSNC Energy, and Long Island Power Authority.
Include an interior vapor barrier. In most climate zones, this is bad advice. Even in a very cold climate, this measure won’t save you any energy. Nevertheless, you can find this tip on lists published by the state of Nebraska and Black Hills Power.
Install a fireplace. This may be one of the worst energy-saving tips ever devised. It comes from an article called “Remodeling Tips to Save Energy At Home” published by Living Green Magazine.
Tips that don’t belong
Sometimes, a list of energy-saving tips includes a few oddball items that were thrown onto the list by a desperate writer battling a press deadline. When you read the list, you wonder, “Now how is this supposed to save energy?”
“Recycle minor things; e.g., reuse empty soda bottles.” That energy-saving tip comes to you from a list on a site called Blackle.com.
“Install countertops made of bamboo.” That tip comes to you from an energy-saving tips list published by My San Antonio magazine.
“Placing a mat at the front and back doors of your home can cut the amount of pesticide residue tracked inside.” That’s one of the “Top Ten Energy-Saving Tips” provided by Goodhousekeeping.com.
Suggestions that are never going to happen
The next tip reminds me of the advice given in the 1950s by parish priests about marital relations: Marital relations happen sometimes, but the act probably shouldn’t involve any pleasure. According to United Power, a Colorado electric utility, it’s possible to save energy if you “set your hot tub heater thermostat to 102º F.” I’m sorry, United Power, but that’s not going to happen.
Another tip in this category is true but totally nuts. According to Duke Energy’s list of “100 Ways to Save Energy at Home,” you should “keep your thermostat close to the outside temperature.”
Yup. That will work.
If you read enough of these energy-saving tips lists, you end up with a few that can only be called bizarre.
Here, in its entirety, is an energy-saving tip from PSNC Energy: “Keep your appliances free of dirt and grease (which can reduce operating efficiency).”
So, after spending half a day wiping down my washer and dryer, how much energy will I save?
One useful website has advice for homeowners who want to do a thermal survey of their home, but who can’t afford an infrared thermometer or infrared camera. What’s the tip? Use your dogs and kids as sensors!
Here’s the advice from Avista Utilities: “Children and animals love comfort, and they can help us find possible heat loss in and around our homes. If there are areas around single pane windows, doors or vents that your kids avoid, consider checking for heat loss. Conversely, if you find the family dog or other living creatures living on the periphery of your home, it might indicate significant heat-loss coming from your floor into your crawlspace, which can translate to lost energy dollars.”
Finally, here is a tip from an article called “Easy Ways to Save Energy This Winter,” published by The Telegraph. It’s a real head-scratcher: “Curing fish with alcohol: When it’s really cold outside, sometimes cold alcohol-cured fish, accompanied by a strong drink like schnapps, can be a wonderful livener, as the Scandinavians know. Rub two whole fillets of salmon with a mixture of two tablespoons of sea salt, one tablespoon of soft brown sugar, a bunch of chopped fresh dill and a generous glass of vodka or schnapps. Sandwich together and put in the fridge, weighted down by a wooden chopping board and several kitchen weights or other heavy items. You can eat it after three days, and it will be good in a fridge for a week.”
Evidently the energy savings come from the fact that you don’t need to use the stove. Another side benefit: after you’ve had some schnapps, you can turn down the thermostat.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Casey Makes a Bet.”