Ultimate Heat Efficient Home Guide: Plugs, timers and appliances

Smart plugs, timers and appliances offer heat and energy savings

Small steps lead to small savings but it all adds up

(Getty Images / Peter Cade)

(Getty Images / Peter Cade)

In the fifth and final posting of the Ultimate Heat Efficient Home Guide, I turn my attention to appliances and gadgets in our house that don’t have a direct impact on your home’s heating and cooling, but can help contribute to higher or lower utility bills.

Step 1: Plug into savings

Consumer electronics consumer 15% to 20% of total residential electricity in North America. Much of this energy is consumed when these devices operated in low-power modes—for instance, when the DVD led display is flashing but it’s idle because you’re not actually using the DVD player. This absorbed power consumption can be reduced with the use of smart plugs.

Now, just about everyone knows what a power bar looks like. When you used to have only two plug points, a power bar gives you four, or six, or up to 12 extra plug points. With a smart power bar, your electronics can be turned off (some automatically) to reduce the unnecessary electricity consumption.

Estimates on how much energy can be saved using smart plug strips varies based on the type of smart plug strip used and what devices are connected to the bar. One study, conducted by Ecos, a U.S.-based manufacturer of affordable green products, showed that by using a smart plug strip with a home entertainment system, you could save about $27 per year; combine that smart plug strip with a timer and you could save $61 per year. It doesn’t sound like a lot but when you start adding up all the electronics there’s the potential to cut your electricity costs by $100 or more per year.

But not all smart power strips are created equal and it’s the application of this technology that will dictate the effectiveness. So step one is to determine: Where will the plug strip be installed? Figure that out and you will know what to use. For a cheat sheet, here’s my list of suggested types and uses, based on the Ecos draft report on the use of smart power plugs.

Power or current sensing smart plug
Also known as load sensing these smart plugs help detect the drop in current that occurs when a control or main device enters a low power mode. For example, if the control device is a computer, the load power bar would sense when the computer enters sleep or standby mode and then disconnects power to the other devices plugged into the strip.

Power/current or load sensing smart plugs strips work well in home offices and with home entertainment centres, where there is a central device (a TV or computer) and several peripheral devices (such as a printer, DVD player, speaker, game console, etc.). These peripheral devices are only used when the central device is on.

Occupancy sensor smart plugs
Occupancy sensor smart plug strips work well in office cubicles because they can detect the presence or absence of the office worker and turn devices on and off accordingly.

Timer smart plug
Smart plug strips can also turn equipment on and off based on a programmable timer.  Turning devices on and off with a timer ensures energy savings over night, and on weekends and holidays.

A timer smart plug strip is great for devices that never need to operate during certain hours—such as a TV that’s never on during the day in a work week.

Remote Controls
Some smart plug strips use wireless remote controls. The advantage of the remote control smart plug strip is that it is a convenient way to control exactly when devices receive power or don’t without having to reach below desks, behind home entertainment equipment, or around furniture to access inconvenient places where plug strips are typically located. Keep in mind, timer plug strips are appropriate in situations where schedules are consistent.

Remote control smart bars are also great for seasonal electricity devices, such as Christmas lights. While my husband thought I was crazy the first year I installed remote power bars for our tree and house Christmas lights, he soon became a convert when we could power these lights on and off from the comfort of our couch.

Know thy name
Smart plug strips come in many different names, which sometimes helps to confuse you when you’re trying to compare apples to apples. Some of the more common terms include:

smart plug strips, smart strips, energy savings power strip, energy saving surge strip, smart power surge strip, smart surge block, auto-power-off plug banks and advanced power strips.

Just remember to keep the power bars own demand low
Smart plug strips draw a small amount of power by themselves. Testing shows that smart plug strips draw between 0.004 and 1.8 watts when no devices are plugged into them. While energy savings will typically outweigh any energy consumed by the smart plug strips, it is important to note that some smart plug strips use a small amount of energy themselves and to be smart in your application of these devices.

Step 2: Appliances

The next step in saving money and creating the Ultimate Heat and Energy Efficient Home is to examine your appliances. Appliances account for 14% of energy use and are the third biggest draw on hydro bills. But you can cut your hydro bill by as much as 30% by upgrading all your appliances to Energy Star rated products.

When Energy Star appliances were first released the price difference between non-energy efficient and energy efficient appliances was quite dramatic. But as more and more manufacturers got on board, the price of these appliances started to drop and now you’d be hard pressed to find an appliance that is not Energy Star rated.  But that doesn’t mean you should read the label.

Take, for example, a dishwasher. The Energy Guide label that comes with every dishwasher shows usage based on a scale that runs from 194 to 531 kilowatt-hours per year (kwh/year). Early on in the Energy Star program, a dishwasher with a score of 374 kwh/year was good enough for the Star qualification, but this year that threshold was lowered to 331 kwh/year. So check your label to how much power your dishwasher will consume.

Also, keep in mind that with certain appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, the Energy Star rating doesn’t take into consideration water usage. Most Energy Star dishwashers use an average of 4 gallons of water per cycle (versus 6 gallons for a non-Energy Star rated dishwasher). But keep reading: Water usage is relative to the cycle you choose, so some dishwashers can use as much as 8 gallons per cycle even if Energy Star compliant. (One way to conserve water is to dry scrape your dishes and avoid sink rinsing. This will save approximately 20 gallons of rinse water at the sink each year.)

Another feature to consider with appliances is a timer. By using a timer built in to your dishwasher, dryer or washing machine, you can fill these appliances up and then program them to start when electricity rates are at their lowest. This is what I do at home. I know it sounds simple: clothes in washing machine, soap and push start. But the only time I seem to be able to get my act together to do the laundry is when it costs a lot to run my machine. Thankfully, I have a timer. Now, instead of pushing start, I load up my machine, add soap and then set the timer. The machine starts automatically—after 7pm when the cost to wash my clothes is cut almost in half from $0.14/kWh to $0.077/kWh—and by the time I head downstairs to my home office, the clothes are ready for the dryer.

Of course, there will be a few of you who may ask: Why bother? When all you’ll save is $85 per year by switching to an Energy Star rated fridge, or $50 per year for a dishwasher, it may seem like small savings. But they do add up. That $135 savings works out to $1,350 over 10 years. Add in an Energy Star washing machine (and save about $650 per year) and you’ll save $7,850 in 10 years.

Step 3: Passive & Active Solar Energy

It sounds dreamy: Harnessing the energy from the sun to heat, power and protect your home. But the reality is switching from non-renewable energy sources to renewable green sources can be an expensive proposition for a home owner. But one can certainly dream and, more importantly, many home owners across the country have gone past dreaming and harnessed the power of the sun.

So what is passive solar energy? When a home utilizes passive solar energy, it’s really using the current building structure, climate and site to minimize energy use. Elements to be considered include window placement and size, glazing type, thermal insulation, thermal mass and shading. For example, roof overhangs to provide additional shade to windows. The essence of passive solar design is to use windows, walls and floors to collect, store and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter and reject the sun’s heat in the summer. Passive solar design techniques can be applied most easily to new buildings, but existing buildings can be adapted or retrofitted. (For tips on how to maximize passive solar energy see the first posting of the Ultimate Heat Efficient Home Guide or for more information on designing a passive solar home, go to the U.S. government’s Department of Energy site.

But what about all those solar panels I see when I drive through my neighbourhood? Those solar panels are part of an active solar energy plan. This involves the addition of mechanical and electrical devices to help make the home’s passive solar design more efficient.

There’s quite a bit of information on the Internet about solar panels, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will stress that the addition of solar panels is not cheap, nor is it easy. Any home owner that wants to add solar panels and be connected to the main grid must fill out an application. (Go here if you live in Toronto. In other cities, check with the municipality building department.) Before being approved, the home owner will need a structural engineer to determine if the roof can withstand the addition of the solar panels. (They are heavy.) For most people I know, this process of application and structural analysis takes approximately nine to 12 months to complete.

Once approved, you’ll then need to pay the cost of installation. While handy home owners may want to tackle this job themselves, I’ll let you know now: You can’t. In order to qualify for the reduced hydro rate, installation rebates, and be included as part of the main grid, your solar panels must be installed by an approved and accredited solar panel installation company. And installation isn’t cheap. As of July 2012, a 24 panel (786 kWh) grid tie system cost approximately $8,650 with an additional $8,000 to $20,000 for installation.

As with most things, the payback period of a solar panel installation varies based on the cost to install and the value of the electricity generated. For example if the average electricity rate in your area is $0.30 per kWh, and your system cost $4 per watt to install, then it would take you just under 10 years to break even.

To read more about solar panels and their payback ratios, go to this U.S.-based Solar Panel installer. While they are in the business of installing solar panels, they also realize the importance of an educated consumer and have provided a detailed synopsis of solar panel uses and the payback time for this type of installation. Another resource is the Globe and Mail article on Ontario’s microfit solar program (the household solar panel program).

Want to read the first installment in the Ultimate Heat Efficient Home guide? Go here.
Want to read the second installment in the Ultimate Heat Efficient Home guide? Go here.
Want to read the third installment in the Ultimate Heat Efficient Home guide? Go here.
Want to read the fourth installment in the Ultimate Heat Efficient Home guide? Go here.

Read more from Romana King at Home Owner on Facebook »

Want more tips on heat and energy efficiency?
Go to: Home Maintenance Checklist-Winter
Go to: The home energy makeover
Go to: Energy upgrade savings
Go to: Ultimate Home Maintenance Guide