Where does all of the energy go in a house?

April 24, 2014

Not only are our houses much larger than they were a couple of generations ago, they are filled with sneaky energy-using appliances that use energy even when they are off. The result is that it is nearly impossible to know where the energy goes.

Watson: Where does all of the energy go in a home, Holmes?

Holmes: Cute play on words, Watson. What does it matter where every watt goes?

Watson: I’m serious, Holmes. Unless you know where your energy is being used how can you know how to conserve it?

Holmes: I published an article in Sustainable Plant in 2012 about my Grandmother titled “Edna May Holmes; Conservation Pioneer”. Read the Article

I talked about how she grew up on a farm in the late 1800’s and never wasted a thing in her life. In her later years when she was a widow on a fixed income she knew what used electricity or gas in her house. She knew when things were on and when they were off; when they were costing her money and when they were not.

Today, our houses are much larger and filled with energy consuming appliances. Most of us have no idea where all of our utility dollars are going.

Watson: So many Americans have their own houses but most of the people I knew in France lived in apartments as I did. I really don’t know much about houses. Tell me about American homes.

Holmes: Glad to. In 1950 the average house size was less than 1,000 square feet. Today it’s almost two and on-half times as big. According to the Long Island Power Authority, when William Levitt was completing the first large-scale, post World War II suburban development on Long Island, the average household used about 2,600 KWH of electricity annually. Today, the average home uses more than 9,500 KWH per year, nearly four times as much.

Watson: Why?

Holmes: In addition to being so much bigger, houses these days have a lot more stuff in them that uses energy. My Grandmother Holmes’s house had a 60 amp electrical service. She could never use more than 60 amps of current at one time; that’s all the bigger her main fuse was.

Watson: You’re kidding? My super iPod uses more than that when I listen to Snoop Dog at full volume.

Holmes: I know that’s hard for you believe but just think about it. One blow dryer uses 15 amps alone. Got a couple of daughters in an old house? Blackout!

Anyway, as houses got bigger and began to include window then central air conditioners, electric clothes dryers and dishwashers, the standard went to 200 amps. Now, for many larger homes with commercial kitchens, multiple TVs, sound systems and computers it’s at least 400 amps. I have no idea what the 25,000 square foot McMansions use; maybe each one has its own electrical generating plant. I don’t know.

Watson: So houses got bigger with more energy using appliances. What else changed?

Holmes: A big factor was that somewhere along the line the appliances started getting sneaky; they started using electricity even when they were off. When people started getting so impatient that they couldn’t wait for a TV to take 30 seconds to warm up with all of the crackling sounds and strange colors on the screen, they demanded “instant on”. When they pushed the “on” button on the remote control for their 144” video wall, they wanted to instantly see one of the 1475 channels with nothing worth watching.

Heck, when I was a kid, I was the remote control. When my Dad or older brother wanted channel 4, 6, 8 or 13 they just said “Billy, change the channel”. I would walk or scoot across the room and click the big plastic dial on the right to the desired channel on the black and white Arvin TV with the six inch screen, the one with a cabinet about the size of a washing machine. No channel surfing in those days!

Watson: How many channels did your cable or satellite have?

Holmes: We had an antenna on our chimney and there were only fourteen channels on the TV dial, numbers one through thirteen plus a UHF channel etched into the plastic. That wasn’t a problem because we only got four channels anyway; three from Indianapolis and one from Bloomington. I have no idea how we survived those 30 seconds it took for the TV to warm up; what we did while we were waiting. I couldn't text my 300 closest friends, scan my 50,000 favorite songs on my iPod or watch a couple of YouTube videos back then.

If you think about it, my mother lived to be 104 and maybe the exercise she got getting up and walking across the room to change channels when I wasn’t around added a few extra years to her life. According to my calculations, she spent more than 25 years of her life just waiting for TVs to warm up. If she had the advantage of “instant on” TVs she would have only lived to be 79 but she would have paid more than $100,000 in additional electrical costs for the electricity her TVs used while they were off.

Tell me about your experiences, both good and bad with energy professionals, what has worked and what hasn’t. Send me your comments, thoughts and suggestions on how to improve our profession so we can all continue to learn from each other. Thanks - Bill

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