Energy Efficiency Improvements Me vs Babci

by Sandy L on March 23, 2011

As some of you know, the homes that both Babci and my family live in were fixers when we bought them.  My home is now been fully redone but babci’s is still in progress.

I thought that today I’d do a little Babci vs Sandy head to head smackdown and see who comes out on top.

Energy Efficiency – Vampire Appliances

Okay, I concede immediately. I really should use Mike’s tips on Phantom Appliances. I have gobs more electronics than babci does.  We have multiple computers, I have a home office, we have cell phones that need charging, etc. Babci actually goes around unplugging everything and she doesn’t even own a cell phone, computer, digital camera, camcorder, etc.  It’s a little annoying when I go to use her microwave, toaster or radio and they are all unplugged. I don’t think she keeps anything plugged in ever. The only thing that’s consistently plugged in is the TV and that’s because it’s hard for her to reach the plug (and even that was unplugged the other day).

I’m pretty sure my family would revolt if everything they used was unplugged at all times.  This one she wins hands down.  Can you imagine not having a computer?

Babci 1, Sandy 0

Energy Efficiency – Electricity Usage

Babci’s electricity Bill is 1/3 of ours and I am constantly complaining to my husband about it. He reminds me of 2 things. The first is that it’s unfair to compare ourselves to someone who grew up without electricity and second, we are a family of 4, so our expenses should be higher.  Babci actually hates bright light because she grew up on candlelight. I’m always complaining about how I can’t see in her house and when I put a bigger wattage bulb, she complains that it’s too bright.

Sandy’s actions – Pros: all energy star appliances, CFL bulbs throughout the house and constantly getting screamed at for turning off lights in rooms that people aren’t currently using.  Cons – using the dryer, air conditioning and in general having more stuff that needs electricty.

Babci’s actions – Pros: 7 watt bulbs that you can’t see anything when they are on, line drying her clothes.  Cons: She likes to keep her water heater at scalding temperatures.  She also has old appliances.

Babci 2, Sandy 0

Energy Efficiency – Weatherproofing

I think I was 15 years old before Babci finally spent the $180 it took to insulate her attic in my childhood home. Afterwards she couldn’t believe how big a difference it made.  Babci also had 33 windows in her apartment building and it was just impossible to do it all at once because she didn’t have the money to replace them. Since borrowing money to do it never entered her pretty little head, every time she got an extra $250 bucks, she would replace 2 windows. I think it took her another 10 years to put double pane windows in her apartment building.  Before we got the new windows, we’d hang plastic up in the winter. It helped, but it was a lot of work and a thin sheet of plastic is not as good as a pane of glass with air in between.

When we bought our home, our attic and ducts were insulated before the first winter came upon us. We also had a programmable thermostat installed.  It did take another 8 years before we had the doors and windows replaced in our home though.  The doors were pretty rough but the windows weren’t as horrible as the 100 year old ones that were in my mom’s home.

In Babci’s current home, the insulation is horrible and the people framed the walls backwards with the 2×4’s set the long way so that there is only 2″ of clearance for insulation in the walls. In addition to the crumbling plaster and need for new wiring, this is yet another reason for gutting rooms, so that we can frame out the walls and insulate with 4″ of fiberglass. Some walls don’t even have any insulation at all.

Think I win this round. Energy efficiency is always at the top of our list of improvements but it was insulating her house at age 15 that showed me what a quick payback time it was.

Babci 2, Sandy 1

Energy Efficiency – Heating

Babci grew up cold and hungry…so these are two areas that she splurges on.  As a result, certain parts of her house are sauna-like at all times, and other parts of her house she stores her root vegetables in because they are so cold.   When Babci went to Poland, one of her pipes froze, but thankfully didn’t burst. After that my husband put his foot down and had the house set to the 60’s for the entire time she was gone, all day 24 hours a day.

The result? Having a couple of hot rooms costs a lot more to heat than having a whole house of warm rooms.  Her bills were actually about $50/month lower when we heated the whole house to the mid 60’s than when she curtains off the kitchen and it’s 80 but keeps the rest of the house frigid.  She also has steam radiators so those are pretty difficult to control.  It takes a lot longer to heat the house and it does overshoot quite a bit.  Forced hot air is much more efficient and way lower maintenance. It’s something to consider if you’re buying a new home. Radiators stink and they’re noisy and take up a lot of room. 

The department of energy has some great tips on heating/cooling .  It’s worth a read in itself. In fact, even my furnace installer was spreading around a myth that this article dispelled. He told me that a furnace has to work harder when it has to heat a whole house up more than a few degrees and to never set my programmable thermostat lower than 65.  WRONG. That’s a myth and it’s pretty sad when a professional says that stuff. The Department of Energy also has some data that says:  By turning your thermostat back 10°–15° for 8 hours, you can save about 5%–15% a year on your heating bill—a savings of as much as 1% for each degree if the setback period is eight hours long. Those are some big numbers.

Just as a data point, for our 1700 sq ft home, we went from using 3 tanks/oil a season to 2 (right now ~$900/yr savings) for the improvements we made:  Insulation, new windows, doors, furnace, programmable thermostat).  Payback was about 5 years and we’ll definitely hit it in our home, plus it helps resale value having new windows/doors, etc.  We keep our house at 68 during the day and 65 at night.  We pay less in heating/year than Babci and have for years.  We did end up having to change both furnaces for different reasons and honestly I didn’t notice as big a difference after replacing a furnace as I did when I  just plugged up the house and kept the cold air from coming in. It did help some, but if I were to choose to spend some coin, I’d do the insulation, doors and windows first, furnace second.

Babci 2, Sandy 2

Energy Efficiency – Summary

I guess Babci and I are tied up and I swear I didn’t plan it tha way.  I still want to do more with our electricity bill, but I’m pretty happy about where we’re at with our heating costs.   Now that I work from home on some days there is a slight uptick in costs for electricity and heat. I guess the last tip I’d say, is that there is definitely a dual benefit to being at work.  You don’t have to use energy during that time, so not only are you earning money but you’re using someone else’s electricity and heating during those hours.  I know some of the frugal extremists even do things like charge their phones at work so they don’t have to do it at home.

What energy efficiency improvements are still on your list?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew @ 101 Centavos March 23, 2011 at 7:04 AM

Great article! Enjoyed the comparisons between generations, and especially liked the quirk about unplugging appliances. Turning out the lights is probably one of the easiest things to do, as is attic insulation. Heat rises, after all.


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 5:44 AM

101 – Yeah, it’s amazing how many electronics we have that Babci has no use for. Garden tools on the other hand..she has things that I don’t even know their function.


Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom March 23, 2011 at 8:18 AM

I admit, I’m way too lazy to run around unplugging things for a possible savings of $25/month. If I was on a fixed income like Babci, I probably would though. Plus it’s kind of bad for the environment to use the extra electricity – that you’re not even really *using*.


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 5:53 AM

Jacq – I have a rule that if I use the item daily, I don’t unplug (except for my laptop which I use in multiple rooms, so the plug always goes with the laptop). I try to unplug little things like phone chargers, kettles, etc when not in use. It would be a good experiment to do for a month just to see how much it really would save. I think our hot water heater is a good chunk and the only answer to that is to take fewer or quicker showers. I know in Africa they asked us to get wet, turn of the shower, lather up and then turn it back on again. May be an option in the summer, but brrr..that’s pretty cold in the winter.


Linda March 23, 2011 at 9:54 AM

I’ve thought about using power strips and turning off/unplugging electronics when I’m not using them, but I think about what a PITA it would be when I turn them back on that I don’t do it. Flashing clocks all the time? Ugh! And every time my TV set has lost power it starts up with programming messages that I have to navigate through. No thanks, I’d rather pay the extra few dollars every month to the phantom power suck.

Insulation is key. Unfortunately in my older home (50+ years old) I’d have to rip out every external wall to add fiberglass insulation to the walls. I have attic insulation, but *no insulation in the walls.* That’s the way they built houses back then. I was roughly quoted about $9K to have insulation foam pumped into the walls, and that cost doesn’t account for fixing the internal walls afterwards; nor was that an official quote, so it could be more. (I guess it could be less, too.) I don’t think I’d really make back my investment unless I definitely stay in the this house for another 20 years at that rate. It’s hard to calculate these things since one never knows how much energy costs will in the future.


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 6:02 AM

Linda – doing the attic is usually pretty cheap and easy. I know your pain, we are ripping my mom’s house apart room by room. Plus a 50 year old home is still in “good shape” so it’s a shame to ruin good walls. You feel less guilty when you’re ripping down walls that are already crumbling or have holes in them from fallen plaster.


retirebyforty March 23, 2011 at 12:45 PM

When I visited my aunt in Australia, they had these switchable wall plugs. So you just turn off the wall plug if you’re not using it. I think that’s a great idea and I’ve been meaning to do this at home, but always put it off. 🙁
We have our TV and stereo hooked up to the surge protector and have been using that to reduce vampire energy, but it’s hard to remember….
Our insulation is pretty good. We have double pane windows and all the exterior walls are concrete (high rise.) I’m pretty amaze how well concrete insulate.


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 5:42 AM

RB40 – My mother in law has them too in rooms that there is no overhead lamp. It’s all good until you plug in a clock. I’m always resetting her clock at her home because I mistake it for a regular light switch. I’m sure you can get used to it though. It’s nice that your house is already snug and warm. It makes such a difference in the summer and winter.


Mel March 23, 2011 at 6:23 PM

I’m from New Zealand, and we also had wall plugs with switches. I now live in Europe and have eventually got used to not having the switch, but in our new house I’d like to have them if it’s possible.

About heating – thanks for the link. We’re currently redoing *everything* in the house we just bought, and heating is one of the absolute most important things for us. I’m sure there’ll be something of use to us in the article!


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 5:40 AM

Mel – We redid 2 furnaces. I’m starting to regret that we didn’t just get rid of the radiators when we put my mom’s new furnace in but it would have meant tearing a bunch of walls down. In hindsight, it would have probably been worth it. Take your time and do you research before making the decision. In our case our oil tank was starting to leak so we didn’t have a lot of time.


Laura March 24, 2011 at 12:12 AM

We have plugs with switches..and every night I run around turning off everything..and I make hubby charge his phone in his car, does that make me a frugal extremist? 🙂

We’re having 2 new windows fitted this week and I’m hoping this will save on future heating costs, although I will miss the wind that currently blows through the old’s like free air con!!


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 6:04 AM

Laura – I loved how quiet my home got when I didn’t have the windows rattling in the wind anymore. It’s really nice. Plus, the new ones are so much easier to clean. I don’t regret spending money on them.


Lindy Mint March 24, 2011 at 3:02 PM

I still have on my list to buy one of those cool power strips for my media center that turn off automatically. I also want to get something similar for charging cell phones, laptops etc…we have a lot of chargers that stay plugged in constantly.

For a while I was being really diligent about turning lights off regularly, and our electricity did go down because of it. But I think my persistence has been fading. The key now is training everyone else in the family to turn things off.


Sandy L March 24, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Lindy – Electricity usage is tough. It seems like everything is electronic now..toothbrushes, books, soap dispensers. I mean come on. I started doing the opposite and getting rid of all that stuff that I could just do the old fashioned way. Electric can way. Electric toothbrush, breadmaker, got rid of them.


Danielle April 4, 2011 at 11:24 AM

New reader here; I appreciate this post as a reminder of how to save on utility costs. My dentist recommends electric toothbrushes — apparently they clean better than the regular kind. My teeth are pretty important to me, so the electric toothbrush will stay!


Sandy L April 5, 2011 at 6:02 AM

Danielle – thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you back. Healthy teeth are worth splurging on.


Money Reasons March 28, 2011 at 8:13 PM

Great article, sorry I’m commenting sooo late!

One great thing about telecommuting is that you don’t have to pay for the gas, it’s getting kind of crazy expensive anymore.

Wow 7 watt bulbs… I guess if i grew up by candlelight, I wouldn’t want a brightly lite house either though!

Glad you pipe didn’t burst! My parents had that happen once in our old house. What a mess!


Sandy L March 29, 2011 at 7:13 AM

Money Reasons – we noticed the pipe when it was still frozen, so we turned off the water main. It would have been inconvenient but not a mess. Stupid pipe was touching the foundation. I hate lazy renovators.


Sandy @ yesiamcheap March 28, 2011 at 11:01 PM

We are in a home from the 30’s which his parents have had forever but never upgraded anything. So we have to pick one thing every summer to fix. Last year it was the roof. The year before that the siding. This year the floor and the insulation. Every time we have extra money it’s a window like Babci did. We did change out the appliances though and had to put in a new hot water heater about a month ago when the old one died. We’re busy paying for that heater now but it saves LOTS on the gas bill. It costs a mint up front but in the long run it’ll pay for itself within a year I think.


Sandy L March 29, 2011 at 7:18 AM

Sandy – that’s what we did in the place. Roofs were first at both of the last two houses. Home are definitely money pits but it will pay off if eventually..I hope.


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