Flip the Switch on Electricity Consumption

Limit your farmhouse energy use and save energy costs with these guidelines from someone who’s made the cut.

by Lynda King
PHOTO: BEV Norton/Flickr

If you’re lucky enough to live in an old farmhouse, you can appreciate the charm and unique character an antique can offer. You also might have discovered that it can be a challenge to keep an old house warm in the winter, and you may be wondering if some of the energy-efficiency options today are applicable to an old house.

My husband and I have discovered that, even in our 10-room, 19th-century farmhouse in Massachusetts, where winters can be long and cold, it’s possible to reduce the use of electricity through lifestyle changes, equipment upgrades and even alternative-energy solutions. Once we decided to become more aggressive in chipping away at the energy-wise improvements we started more than 30 years ago, we reduced our annual electrical consumption by about 2,000 kilowatt hours.

A good place to start when assessing your energy use is a home energy audit. A home energy audit can help you identify possible opportunities for reducing your electricity consumption. Our home energy audit was offered for free by our electric company.

Rethink lightbulbs.

As part of the audit, we were given 24 compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) to replace the standard incandescent bulbs we had in our lamps and lighting fixtures. According to Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, CFLs use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

A CFL lasts for about five years and, over its life, can save $30 in electricity costs. Be aware that the bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, so disposed of them properly when they reach the end of their useful life.

Kick clunkers to the curb.

Many people have an old, spare refrigerator in the basement for beverages or to stock up on certain items when they’re on sale at the grocery store. If you have one, it might be time to rethink its value in your home. Do you really need a spare? If you do, it could be worth replacing, even if it’s been an “old faithful.”

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One of the findings of our energy audit was that the old clunker refrigerator we had in the shed was sucking up about 180 kWh of electricity per month, at a time when our average monthly usage was 797 kWh per month.

We debated whether we really needed a spare refrigerator, but ours is always full, whether with summer vegetables from the garden waiting to be processed or with leftovers from family gatherings. We decided to replace it with a more energy-efficient model that used only 40 kWh per month.

After our washing machine gave up the ghost, we shopped for a new model, guided by the government’s Energy Star ratings. From all we’d heard and read, we knew that front-loaders were more energy-efficient than our old top-loader, with the added benefit that they use less water. We purchased the most energy-efficient model we could afford.

Switch up your routine.

There are small, inexpensive steps you can take to reduce your electricity consumption, some involving minor changes to your lifestyle. The first place to start is with the basics—turn off lights when you leave a room.

Another place to look for savings is the laundry room. On average, electric dryers use 3.3 kWh of electricity per load, which can really add up over the course of a month. We decided to reduce our use of the electric dryer by air-drying our clothes whenever possible. We purchased a five-line retractable clothesline for our yard and started hanging the laundry to dry. We purchased a folding wooden drying rack for indoor use during inclement weather. (The added benefit of drying clothes indoors in winter is that it helps humidify the air.)

Stake a few energy “vampires.”

Just about every home—young or old—has “energy vampires,” electrical gadgets that consume power even after you’ve turned them off. In your kitchen, a digital clock on the stove, the coffeepot and the microwave are all energy vampires. If the TV and stereo have little red indicator lights on, even when they’re off, they’re sucking energy. Anything with a “chunky” plug is also an energy vampire: Think cell-phone chargers, laptops and even hair dryers. Any appliance plug that feels warm to the touch when it’s off is an energy vampire. The most obvious thing to do is unplug them when they’re not in use.

Unplugging may not always be practical, especially with entertainment systems or computer systems, which have multiple pieces of gear linked together, some of which can’t be turned off without painful consequences. One inexpensive gadget that can help is a Smart Strip Power Strip. (Some electric companies sell them or offer rebates on them.) This strip allows you to plug in all your equipment in a related system, have it controlled by one device in that system, and still leave the critical piece on. We discovered our electric company had tested these devices and concluded that one Smart Strip, over the course of a year, would save the equivalent kilowatt hours of two Energy Star-rated refrigerators.

Get the goods that do good.

In 2009, we came across information about a Kilovolt-ampere-reactance (KVAR) energy controller, said to help reduce electricity usage in buildings containing a lot of motorized equipment. According to the manufacturer, the KVAR is “an energy-saving device designed to optimize electrical motors and reduce amperage and heat generation, which results in a lower consumption of electricity.”

We have a swimming pool with a pump that runs frequently during the summer, two refrigerators, a freezer, an air conditioner in the bedroom during the summer, and a sump pump that runs almost nonstop during the rainy season. We thought the KVAR was worth a look.

After getting references from two people who had installed these devices in their homes with good results, we decided to purchase one. The device cost us about $400 and required installation by a qualified electrician directly at the electrical box and in the first position. The manufacturer guaranteed a 6- to 10-percent reduction in electricity consumption in the first 60 days after installation. In the first 6 months after we had it installed, our electricity consumption dropped by 20 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

Give electricity the slide.

It’s not as high-tech as some of the alternative energy sources making the news today, but heating with wood is practical if you have a readily available supply of relatively inexpensive wood. There are a few options for how to heat with wood, from the high-end outdoor wood furnaces and indoor furnaces that use a combination of wood and coal or wood and oil to the lower-end wood stove.

We have two wood stoves to help heat our house. One is a free-standing unit located in a central room; the other is a fireplace insert model at the far end of the house. The room where the free-standing unit is located (aka, the “wood-stove room”) is floored with ceramic tile, which helps retain heat from the stove. The room has wide doorways on two walls, one of which has a 3.5-inch-square fan mounted in the corner to help distribute the heat. We use four to five cords of wood each year, about half of which we gather ourselves for free.

If you’re ready to take the plunge into something a little more high-tech, solar water heating might be the answer. An installer explained how such a system could be implemented in our house with no disruption to walls and ceilings.

Our house is situated ideally for a system like this, with a southwest-facing orientation unobstructed by trees. The solar collectors sit on our roof, facing south. The conduit pipes carrying the water to and from the solar collector run across the roof and down the back of the house, on the outside, connecting at the foundation to the rest of the system in our cellar.

None of the changes we’ve made have negatively impacted the look or charm of our antique home, but they’ve helped us save money and reduce our electricity consumption.

This article is excerpted from “Farmhouse Face-lift” in the September/October 2010 issue of Hobby Farm Home.

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