August 8, 2011 Leave a comment
August 14 marks the eighth anniversary of the worst power outage in North America. It affected most of the Northeast and Midwest United States, as well as Ontario, Canada. Our heat waves this summer set temperature records but there were no power outages because power companies lowered the voltage (created brownouts) in many communities, and reduced or turned off power for air-conditioning systems and water heaters for customers who had volunteered to endure brief cutoffs in exchange for rebates.
In Maryland, where I live, our electrical utility offers a range of rebate programs. My own choice – and the one I recommend to my home inspection clients – is a 50% cut-off plan. In other words, when there are peak demands on the electrical grid, the power to my house can be cut by 50%. This is manageable, even in a heat wave.
In my area, there was a great outcry from electrical customers who had signed up for the maximum rebate and maximum shut off of 100%. Many of them suffered up to 12 hours without air-conditioning on a 100°-plus day – making that extra large rebate a lot less attractive.
Regardless of the rebate program you choose, you will be better prepared to deal with extreme heat or cold if you put your house through an energy audit that makes use of a device called a blower door.
These tests, which are often subsidized by power companies, are rigorous energy “stress tests.” They can tell you where your house leaks air, letting out heat in the winter and letting in heat and humidity in summer. Fixing those leaks will make a huge difference in your comfort level during extreme weather – and in your heating and cooling bills.
It’s best to do these tests in the winter, because the testing is effective only when there is at least a 20°F difference between inside and outside temperatures. That can be hard to achieve during a heat wave, because even with air conditioning a house can have a temperature of 80°F when outside temperatures approach 100°F.
A pensioner I know, who was able to get a free blower door energy audit and free weatherization, now saves 30 to 40% on her heating and cooling bills. She is on a 50% cut off plan with the local power company and during the recent heat wave experienced only the normal heat gain in her house that she expects on hot days.
On hot days, here are some ways to keep your house cooler and also take advantage of your power company’s rebates:
1. During daylight hours, keep your thermostat higher — we keep ours at 78°F
2. From 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. turn it down to 71°F when there is less demand on the electric grid. Cooling your house down overnight makes it easier to fight the heat the next day.
3. Cut off air conditioning in rooms that you can avoid using. In our house, that includes the living room, the dining room, the guestroom, and the basement. We not only close supply registers, we cover them or plug them. If your ducts are in the floor, pick up the grating and stuff the ducting with rags or towels. If they are on the wall, cover them with a flexible magnetic cover that looks like a large refrigerator magnet (these are available in most of the big box building supply stores).
In short, by cooling a smaller area of your house, you can earn a rebate and still stay comfortable.