A recent New York Times article about the US Department of Energy (DOE) underscores a major problem we have in reducing energy usage. An audit of DOE buildings determined that the agency could save over $11.5 million annually by properly using setback controls on evenings and weekends. Out of 55 buildings surveyed, 35 either did not have or did not properly use setback thermostats.
Based on my personal observation, wasted energy is common in commercial buildings, most often when air conditioning is set at frigid levels, requiring workers to wear jackets and even use electric heaters to stay comfortable. It seems to me that a modest amount of thoughtful building management could save enormous amounts of energy, if we only had the will to do it.
Homes are a problem, too
Residentially, we see much of the same wasteful behavior. Many homeowners do not know how to or simply don’t bother to program setback thermostats. On top of this, they leave lights and computers on when not in use, and, my personal favorite, ceiling fans activated when no one is in the room to be cooled by them. Most people don’t realize that ceiling fans provide convective cooling–they make you feel cooler when air blows directly on the skin. If you aren’t sitting underneath it, it serves no purpose. Fan motors also generate heat, warming the room slightly when they’re running. It makes me crazy to see fans running on front porches all day long with no one anywhere near them.
We have become a lazy and wasteful society. We get our power from wall outlets, and regardless of what we pay for it, the supply is endless, so we neither worry about it nor make conserve it. I know people who keep their heat and air conditioning on with their windows and doors open!
What will it take to make us change?
I have written before about energy monitoring devices, both simple and complex, cheap and expensive, that provide usage feedback, and the fact that they can help change behavior. While useful, such products just scratch the surface of behavior modification. Not only do we need to teach people how to properly manage and maintain their homes for maximum performance, we need to change their behavior enough so that they actually do the things they need to do to conserve more. Simple things, like opening and closing windows and doors to keep heat in or out, or even opening and closing blinds to control the sun’s heat, seem to be beyond the will of most homeowners. Most of us turn on heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer without giving any thought to the cost and environmental impact of our actions.
I would really like to know what keeps us from taking simple actions that can have a big impact. Is it laziness, ignorance, or a combination? As industry professionals, we must take the time to educate our clients about how to manage their homes. But what will motivate people to change their behavior enough to make a real difference? I wish I knew.