Want to save energy? First, know the numbers

Posted Jan. 23, 2009, at 10:42 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.

A small blessing of the recession is the fact that fuel costs have dropped from last summer’s historic highs — at least until the economy recovers. It is always good to get some breathing room to reconsider our options. I hate to be under duress when thinking about spending money. So last week, after realizing that we are basically halfway through the heating season, I noticed that I was halfway through the woodpile.

That seemed to fit, until I realized the woodpile had three equal stacks and I had only gone through one stack. So in reality, I am only one-third through my cord of firewood. We do also use about 125 gallons of oil for hot water and backup heat.

I mentioned to Dick Hill that serendipity had shined briefly in my little world and I was pleased about the wood thing. Dick e-mailed me a pithy insight: The federal Energy Information Administration says that the average U.S. home uses 100,000 British thermal units per square foot per year. (The energy represented by a Btu is equal to a single match burning.) The natural question from Dick was, “How does the Gocze house compare?”

This is a fun and simple exercise that any of us can do. It is always interesting to see where we fall within the bell curve of residential energy use.

The EIA number reflects total energy use: electricity and all fuels. It is not a perfect measure, but it is a standard that is helpful, like EPA car mileage ratings.

So here is how to figure this out for yourself: Grab your electric bill. From the electric bill, check out your monthly usage. Say, for example, that you have used 500 kilowatt-hours. Take this number and multiply it by 3,413. The resulting number is the amount of Btu you used in that month. Total up all 12 months and save that number.

Get your oil or gas consumption for the year. You can call your supplier and ask how many gallons of fuel you used. If you are using No. 2 fuel oil, multiply the number of gallons by 138,800. If you are using LP gas, multiply the number of gallons by 91,300. Natural gas is 1,025,000 Btu per 1,000 cubic feet. The total is the number of Btu of heating petroleum you used. If you are using firewood, figure 15.3 million Btu per cord for air-dried. Wood pellets are 13.6 million Btu per ton. Anthracite coal is 25 million Btu per ton.

We are not figuring conversion losses, but rather what you are buying in terms of cost to you. If you add up all your fuel use in Btu, you now have a sum of your energy usage.

There is one more bit of arithmetic: Figure out the square footage of your home. If you are not sure, get a tape measure and measure the house. This is usually not too big a hassle and is a number that you should know. I never get it right until I get out the tape measure.

I have been telling people for years that we live in a 1,000-square-foot house, when in reality it is 1,232. I guess this is why I am not an engineer.

So here’s the last bit: Divide that big energy total (in Btu) by the square footage of your home. Now you can compare your usage with the national average. This is not an elaborate project and you might have all the information kicking around in your head, so you can at the very least get a ballpark estimate.

Why do this? Well, if you are thinking about making an investment in any scheme to save energy, you need to know what your usage in energy is and how you compare to the rest of the world (or at least our country).

Some folks like to keep the house cool this time of year and that will pull the numbers down. Good for you! I admire your fortitude. That is one scheme for coping with an energy crisis.

I think we can, however, live comfortably in 2009 without having to suffer the cold in the dark.

Oh, yeah, my number was 37,500 Btu per square foot. And it is always 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s not dark in the house. And I know we all can do better.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at http://bangornews.com/thehomepage.html

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