Most people understand the concept of a car’s fuel efficiency -- 45 miles to a gallon is good and 15 miles is not so good -- but if you ask them how to gauge their homes’ energy efficiency, you will probably be met with a blank stare.
“Cars have a mpg, homes do not,” says Aaron Goldfeder, co-founder and chief executive of EnergySavvy.com. “By and large, homeowners have no idea what 12,000 kilowatts per year is.”
But the public and private sectors are working to change that. To help people get a better handle on how much energy
they are using and possibly even wasting, the Department of Energy and companies like Aaron’s have rolled out online tools that put people’s energy use at their fingertips. The sites collect information on a user’s home to determine its problem areas and then offer up ways to improve its efficiency.
The logic behind the programs is similar: If people know how much energy they are using, they may take action to conserve it and, therefore, save some cash.
“We want to make energy efficiency easy for homeowners,” says Aaron, a former Microsoft employee who launched the website in February with co-founder Leo Shklovskii formerly of Amazon.com. “So you know where you are at; know what the smart things are to do; and how you can get it done.”
The Department of Energy’s Home Energy Saver was the first web-based, do-it-yourself energy audit online tool for homeowners that began in 2002. Developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the program is designed to help consumers identify the best ways to save energy, and find the resources to make the savings happen.
For example, if someone living in a single-family home in Austin, Texas, uses the tool, they would be informed they have the potential to save almost $950 a year. Filling in other information about the house (i.e., type of foundation, heating equipment) would give the homeowner a more precise estimate of how much energy and money can be saved and the amount of emissions that can be reduced by implementing energy-efficiency improvements.
The 6 millionth user visited the site in January, and MSN-Money rated it among the top five government sites for "tackling financial problems and making life simpler and easier."
Microsoft taps into the same database for its Hohm online tool.
People who have a smart meter, the device that measures home energy use in greater detail, are turning to Google PowerMeter. With this tool, people can view their home's energy consumption from anywhere online. A series of graphs show exactly how much energy appliances are using each day or week, and a budget tracker allows users to set energy goals.
On the site’s “real people, real savings” webpage, one user from Minneapolis declared: "To me, getting an energy bill once a month, you can't learn anything from it. I'm not someone who's going to live in a cold house in the winter, but if there are things that I can do to be more aware, more comfortable, and save, then I'll do it." The user saw a 40 percent decrease in energy costs, according to the post.
Another user from California was concerned about accessibility. “…[I]t was important to me to have my energy information at my fingers at any time,” he wrote.
EnergySavvy.com is the newest kid on the block but is already approaching over 10,000 online energy audits, Aaron says.
On the site, users input information about their home, clicking on graphics and sketches of equipment and building materials to answer questions. The program then displays a score between 0 and 100, the latter indicating a more energy-efficient home, and a customized action plan that suggests areas where the home needs improvement.
A home located in Drexel Hill, Pa., built in 1965 with three floors, moderately-insulated walls, natural gas heat, and two freezers, for instance, received a score of 67. According to the site, the house needs more insulation in the attic, energy-efficient light bulbs and other improvements. Savings over a three-year period totaled almost $3,000.
The website also gives the user an opportunity to contact a contractor in their area to perform the work, and teaches people about tax rebates and incentives available in their part of the country.
“Given that there isn’t a national “mpg” for homes,” Aaron says, “we are starting to give people an estimate so they see how to improve their home’s energy efficiency.”