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Some easy methods to cut power use are also cheap

Wednesday, 14 March 2001
By David Wichner
Arizona Daily Star

With an energy crisis looming in California and natural gas prices on the rise locally, now is as good a time as any to make your home more energy efficient.

Whether your goal is saving money or saving the Earth, there are dozens of ways to cut your home energy bills.

Energy experts say homeowners can save up to 75 percent on energy costs by adjusting their power usage, upgrading insulation, using energy-efficient lighting and appliances, and making other improvements.

"Conservation pays, and people should be doing a lot more," said Helmut Frank, economics professor emeritus at the University of Arizona.

Electric rates are expected to stay frozen in Tucson through 2008, in part because Arizona utilities generate plenty of their own power.

But this winter, Tucson consumers learned they were going to pay about 12 percent, or $70, a year more for natural gas. Gas costs are not expected to come down anytime soon, industry officials say.

Tucsonans already have a good energy-conservation record, Frank said.

According to a study Frank updated last year for the Tucson-Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission, Tucson used almost 9 percent less energy per capita in 1998 than in 1992, while consumption in the rest of the state remained flat.

Some of the easiest ways to cut your energy bills are among the cheapest.

Most electric utilities, including Tucson Electric Power Co., offer "time of use" rates and metering that allow ratepayers to save up to 30 percent during "off-peak" hours.

Under TEP's program, customers must sign up for the time-of-use rate for one year. However, if customers don't save money, they can switch back to standard rates and the difference is credited to their accounts.

"It's nothing out of pocket for them, and it's guaranteed or they can go back," TEP spokeswoman Wendy Erica Worden said.

Likewise, programmable thermostats can cut your heating and cooling bills by automatically adjusting the temperature to minimize usage while you're away from home.

Such devices can be had for as little as $20 and save up to 10 percent on heating and cooling costs, paying for themselves in a matter of months.

Other small measures, such as weatherstripping and caulking drafty windows and doors, wrapping an insulation blanket around a water heater and replacing furnace-cooler filters more frequently, are no-brainers that quickly add up savings.

Some energy-saving improvements require some significant investment and may take years to pay off.

Upgrading insulation can be one of the most cost-effective energy improvements a homeowner can make.

Insulation is all about increasing the "R value," a figure that represents a material's ability to resist heat transfer.

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that homes in Southern Arizona have an R value of at least 38.

Though ceilings, walls and floors have some insulating properties, adding insulation to the attic is the most practical strategy for existing homes, said Stuart MacTavish of Banker Insulation in Tucson.

"Your highest area of heat gain and heat loss is straight through the top," MacTavish said, adding that insulating existing walls involves costly wall patching.

MacTavish said he recommends adding blown-in cellulose or fiberglass over existing insulation to boost the total R value of the attic floor to at least R-30.

At about 35 to 55 cents per square foot for blown-in insulation, a homeowner can boost the R-value of a 1,500-square-foot house for $525 to $825.

MacTavish said such insulation can also cut summer cooling bills by 20 percent to 30 percent, paying for itself within two to four years.

"If you can get a 48-month return (on investment), it's easy money," he said.

Windows and window coverings are another insulation item.

Old-style, single-pane windows provide almost no buffer against outside temperatures and may account for about half a typical home's heat loss. Double-glazed replacement windows can cut energy use by 10 percent or more.

Replacement windows are relatively costly, however, at $250 to $350 per window.

A cheaper option is insulating interior window coverings, including pleated blinds that form an air barrier when extended. Popular models run about $50-$70 per window.

Appliances that use less energy can also boost your savings.

Consumers can easily compare energy usage among appliance models by reading the federally mandated "Energy Guide" sticker, which compares each appliance to the least- and most-efficient models in terms of annual power costs.

Since the refrigerator is the main energy user, typically sucking up as much as 15 percent of a home's power usage, it's a prime target for energy savings.

Few people in Tucson have a refrigerator as cheap to run as the one Civano residents Bill and Mary Webber use.

The Webbers bought a $1,300 fridge made by ConServ to help make the most of their photovoltaic power system, a feature that many homes in the energy- efficient development share.

The refrigerator boasts an operating cost of just $2 per month. But there are some tradeoffs, including a relatively small 10.5-cubic-foot total capacity and the lack of a frost-free mechnism, Mary Webber noted.

Contact David Wichner at 573-4181 or at