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Going green, saving cash

Architect Christina Snyder installing a solar unit.
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Published 4/15/2009

The way architect Christina Snyder sees it, the future is green. By that she means energy prices, particularly petroleum-based fuels, though down from their peak of a few years ago, are eventually going to rise again. And the people who prepare for that now by seeking energy-efficiency are going to be better able to weather that hit.

The same logic applies to people already struggling to survive the downturn now under way. And you can do it without making big investments in solar panels or wind turbines, says Snyder, an adjunct professor at Lawrence Technical University.

"In most American houses, there's lots of room for improvement," says Snyder, who specializes in designing energy-efficient structures. "Just by changing our behavior, there are ways to conserve energy that don't cost anything."

Start, she says, by looking around your house at devices that continue to draw current even when not in use. Basically anything with an LED display that's always glowing, be it a microwave oven or a VCR. The energy drains are called "ghost" or "phantom" loads. It's simple enough to plug these devices into a power strip with an on-off button so that you can cut the power completely. Likewise, the same is true for phone chargers and similar devices. According to the University of California at Berkeley, "Nationally, phantom loads make up about 6 percent of our energy consumption. This translates into billions of dollars spent and countless amounts of pollution emitted into our air. Obviously, phantom loads are a huge problem, especially as energy costs rise ..."

Using an outside clothesline during warm weather and an inside drying rack when it's cold or wet to curtail use of electric or gas dryers can also cuts costs, by as much as $100 to $200 a year, according to some estimates.

Snyder — who, along with her husband, is building a home near Manchester that they expect to be 90 percent more energy-efficient than a typical new home — says that for about $5 you can make a "solar crock pot" to use for cooking. Along with the gas or electricity savings, such a device also cuts down on the expense of air conditioning during the summer by avoiding use of the stove. For info, go to solarcooking.org.

In terms of the big picture, says Snyder, the U.S. government needs to be doing more to get energy-efficiency funds into the hands of those who are struggling financially. By using what she calls "micro-loans," the government can help those with lower incomes afford things like insulation and energy-efficient windows. The loans (plus interest) would be repaid with the savings these people will realize on their heating bills. At the same time, the work is labor-intensive, so it will put cash into the hands of installers as well as manufacturers.

"On average, weatherization reduces heating bills by 32 percent and overall energy bills by about $350 per year at current prices," according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"This is one of the best investments we could make," says Snyder.

For more information on the state of Michigan's weatherization program contact the Department of Human Services at (517) 373-2035 or e-mail: dhsweb@michigan.gov.

For info about energy-efficient home building go to www.passivehouse.us.

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