Energy Conservation: Starting At Home When Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley challenged the state's 5.6 million residents to reduce their home electricity consumption by 15 percent, NPR's Richard Harris looked at ways his household could better conserve.

Energy Conservation: Starting At Home

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We turn now to one state that has adopted one of the most aggressive laws in the country for cutting back on energy use. Maryland is among more than a dozen states that have adopted ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the need for new power stations and transmission lines.

This spring, Maryland's governor signed a law that calls for a 15 percent reduction in the use of electricity over the next seven years. NPR's Richard Harris lives in Maryland and over the next few days he'll examine the challenges and opportunities involved in saving energy.

RICHARD HARRIS: Conservation experts say the nation should be able to reduce electricity used by 30 to 50 percent and save money in the process. Maryland's goal is 15 percent, but it can't possibly get there unless homeowners all around the state take action themselves. So to get a feel for what it would mean for me, a typical resident, I asked efficiency expert Jennifer Thorne Amman to come to my house, an old clabbered home on a quiet suburban street.

Ms. JENNIFER THORNE AMMAN (Efficiency Expert): Let's go.


(Soundbite of door creaking)

HARRIS: You will be greeted by the dog.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Hi, Rusty. You ready to reduce your carbon footprint?

(Soundbite of dog barking)


HARRIS: He's got four feet to work with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: But he's got a head start.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, lead on.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Okay. Well, first things first, when we come in the front door - everyone wants to check, and I see you've got a bit of a door sweep here.

HARRIS: A little weather-stripping along the bottom.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: A little weather-stripping along the bottom. And you know, that's really something for each person to tell for themselves. You know, take a stick of incense or a candle around to your windows and doors and see where you might have some leaks coming in.

HARRIS: For less than 20 bucks, she says you can stop those drafts and save on heating and cooling. Thorne Amman works for a nonprofit, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. She says the next easy fix is light bulbs. Lighting consumes about 10 percent of a typical home's electricity. So switching to compact fluorescents, or CFLs, can cut overall electricity use by up to seven percent. That's almost halfway to the Maryland goal.

I've been changing up my light bulbs.


HARRIS: Not everywhere, but these are compact fluorescents here in the kitchen. And most of the remaining light bulbs in the house that are incandescent light bulbs are on dimmers. And I went to the hardware store to buy dimmable CFLS and they were $17 each, which seemed like, ouch, too much for, like, eight or ten bulbs around the house. I don't want to spend well over $100 for light bulbs.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Right. I know that dimmable CFLs are still, you know, kind of in that high end range. But the prices are going to be dropping quickly.

HARRIS: That's because a new law will eventually phase out conventional bulbs. I think I'll wait for the prices to come down.

So, you want to look at appliances?

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Yeah, let's look at your appliances.

HARRIS: So this fridge is 11 years old. Would it make sense to buy a new one now?

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: It probably would. In 2001 new standards went into effect on refrigerators that were a 30 percent improvement over what had happened before. And now you can buy Energy Star models that are 20 percent above that new federal standard.

HARRIS: On closer inspection it turns out this fridge is actually pretty energy efficient, so it would be a waste of money to throw it out. So onward into the living room - we looked at the TV set. But I don't have a cable box or TiVo, which is a power hog. Gadgets and big TVs can consume up to 25 percent of a home's electricity, she says.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: So this is where you're an atypical Marylander. But that doesn't mean that there aren't options for you. What I would suggest is, you know, if you're not using the TV a lot, it really does make sense to unplug it or to put all your devices on a power strip that has a switch and just flip off the switch on your power strip.

HARRIS: It was no sweat for me to put my TV and VCR on a power strip. And nosing around a bit more with a watt-meter, I discovered that even my electric toothbrush charger was gobbling up more power than the bathroom lights each day. So I unplugged that too. So thus far I'm about halfway to the 15 percent reduction goal. Next, we head downstairs.

(Soundbite of footsteps and door creaking)

HARRIS: And here's another feature of our house, is children don't always turn off the lights.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Oh, yeah. Yes, there are behavioral as well as technological fixes for getting to 15 percent.

(Soundbite of door creaking)

HARRIS: Now, this is the scary room in the house.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Oh, okay.

HARRIS: The basement.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: This is where all the good stuff is.

(Soundbite of door creaking)

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: This is where we'll find the real energy-saving opportunities.

HARRIS: Central air conditioning is the biggest user of electricity in most homes. Our unit is a brand-new high efficiency model, so no chance to save more there. But sitting right next to the air handler is an old stand-up freezer. Thorne Amman tells me that I could replace this with a modern Energy Star model and save lots of electricity.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: For a model like this that's quite old, we could look at payback probably within four or five years.

HARRIS: I crunched a few numbers and found that switching to a new freezer would cut my home's electricity consumption by six percent. And although I'd have to come up with about $450 to buy the freezer, I'd save $100 a year on my electric bill from here on out.

But the real energy savings potential turned out to be my electric water heater.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: The electric water heater is probably the second-largest consumer of electricity in your home. Your best bet, if you have an electric water heater but you have gas in your home, is to see whether it might be feasible for you to upgrade to a gas water heater.

HARRIS: Okay. I was shocked to discover that my water heater probably gobbles up 35 percent of my home's electricity. So switching to gas would catapult me past Maryland's 15 percent reduction goal. And if it costs $1,000 to make the switch, I'd probably start seeing big savings after about five or six years - maybe a few more years than that depending upon the price of natural gas.

Jennifer Thorne Amman says I could make a dent right away by reducing the amount of hot water my teenage son uses during his long, luxurious showers.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Have you installed low flow showerheads in all of your showers? That could lead to some savings. Other than that, you know, I don't know how to keep a teenage boy out of the shower. But you know, certainly that can make a difference.

HARRIS: That made so much sense I picked some up the next time I was at the hardware store. So all in all, my take home lesson, or keep home lesson, was this: I could make some difference with a few inexpensive purchases like compact fluorescents and low flow showerheads. But to get to the Maryland goal of a 15 percent reduction, I'd have to buy a new freezer. I could go further and even cut my electricity bill in half by replacing my water heater. And in four to six years or so, those investments would probably pay for themselves and the power bills remain low after that.

(Soundbite of door closing)

HARRIS: All right. Well, it sounds like I still have work to do.

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: Yeah, still some work to do, but over time you can really see the changes in your bills.

(Soundbite of door closing)

HARRIS: Oh, I forgot to mention the electric guitar. I don't suppose that draws a lot.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Ms. THORNE AMMAN: You know, I've never metered an electric guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar)

HARRIS: No matter. Some things around my house are simply not going to change.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Like Richard, you can cut down on both your electric bill and the impact you have on the environment by cutting back on your energy use. For tips on how to do that, visit

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