Which direction should my ceiling fan rotate?

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the driveway here in North Carolina.  We’re still in the upper 80s at night, which means my usual moments of relaxation on the back porch are filled with the smooth sounds of air conditioners humming into the thick air.

If you have air conditioning, you’d be crazy not to use it right now.  That said, you may be using it more than you need to…

This week’s question comes from one of my very favorite people in the entire world: Amy Murphy Anderson.  Aside from being one of the most beautiful (inside and out) women on Earth, she also happens to be one of the best production pros in the film and TV business.  She asked…


I can never remember which direction my ceiling fan should rotate in winter and summer. Any suggestions on an easy way to remember?”


I’m asked this question more often than any other, and for good reason.

The wind chill produced by a good fan can make you feel so cool that you can turn down your air-conditioning by nearly 8 degrees without noticing a difference during the summer months.

In the winter, a properly rotating ceiling fan can keep your heated room warm by minimizing the amount of heat that rises through your ceiling, maintaining a more even room temperature.  Both applications will provide some solid savings on your energy bill.

Before I get too far off track, I’ll share my mnemonic for remembering the direction your fan should rotate for the season:

Remember Clockwork Orange.  Orange is a warm color and clockwise fans promote warm air.  Keep your fan rotating clockwise when you want to be warmer, counter-clockwise when you want it to be cooler.

Weird, yes. But it works, so whatever.

So, right now your ceiling fan should be rotating in a counter-clockwise direction if you want to maintain your cool.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should look at your ceiling fan’s motor housing (the thing that the fan blades go into) for a button or switch.  On most models, it’s a little up/down switch on the side that changes the direction.  Please remember to turn the fan off before you go meddling with this.

Got it? Awesome.  Let’s take this to the next level…

Breaking Wind

You can save up to 15% on your cooling costs if you raise your thermostat and use the fan instead.  You can figure in another 2% for every degree you lower your thermostat in the winter.

A decent ceiling fan will cost between $50 and $500.  Obviously they can be even more expensive depending on design.  Our bedroom fan cost $120 and it came with a remote control.  You may not need this, but you do need to make sure you buy one that has a control to reverse the direction as described above.  (believe it or not, some cheap ones don’t have this feature)

Ours is also an ENERGY STAR model, which means ours is theoretically 50% more efficient than a non-certified model.  To be completely honest for those unfamiliar with this label, these performance standards are self-reported by the manufacturer under their own (presumably optimal) conditions, so I wouldn’t take that percentage to the bank.  They are undoubtedly much more efficient, but how much exactly depends largely on how you use them.

No Matter What She Told You, Size DOES Matter

Like so many other things in life, proper placement and size make all the difference in the world.

When you are choosing a fan, you’re going to need to know the square footage of the room where it will be installed.  Smaller rooms can have a smaller blade span.  It should say right on the box what size room the fan can handle.

Also, you’re going to experience a difference in performance if you install the fan in a room with cathedral ceilings as opposed to a room with a standard 8-foot ceiling.  Some will tell you that you’re not going to get all the benefits if you have a normal room, but I disagree.  I will concede, though, that angled ceilings will benefit more from the wind than flat ones.

Likewise, you’re going to have a better wind chill if your fan isn’t super close to your ceiling.  While it may seem like a good idea to buy whatever model will keep the blades as far from your head as possible, you’re losing the benefits for every inch you bring it closer to the ceiling.  You need to give it room to bring in fresh air or it won’t work like you want it to.

So Fresh and So Clean, Clean

You can keep your fan operating at optimal efficiency by keeping the blades clean.  This will also improve your air quality and will save you from looking like a disgusting person who doesn’t care that the breeze is laced with dust and skin particles.  Gross.

Another way to keep your fan moving in all the right ways is to find out what kind of motor you’re working with.  Some motors have sealed ball bearings that stay lubricated, while others rotate in an oil bath.

If you have the latter, make sure you add some oil when necessary so you don’t burn it out.  You will know there are issues because it will sound like a squeaky squirrel is attempting an escape from the motor housing.  If you do burn it out, go ahead and buy a nicer fan that has the sealed ball bearings.

Gone With The Wind

I’ve said this before and was surprised how many people didn’t know that fans cool people, not rooms. Flip the switch or pull the chain as you leave so you’re not needlessly wasting energy.  Yes, really.

And with that final tip, I’m off…

A few quick notes before I go:

  • I give advice on this blog that assumes a certain level of handiness on your part.  Please do not mess around with motors, electric wires or anything like that if you don’t know what you’re doing.  It’s always best to consult a professional if you think there’s a chance you may lose a finger or burn your house down.
  • If you have an energy-related question that you’d like me to answer in a future post, tweet @Renewabelle or get in touch with me one of a few other ways over here.
  • If you have any follow up questions or notes you’d like to add about the information I’ve included here on ceiling fans, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  I hope this information proves useful and that it finds you well.

RB

Are tankless water heaters worth the money?

You may have heard about Third Tribe, an awesome community of people who gather under the entrepreneurial tent of Brian Clark, Sonia Simone, Chris Brogan and Darren Rowse to discuss Internet marketing and online business.  I joined when it first opened in February and have loved every month of my membership ever since.

I asked my fellow 3T members if anyone had a question I could answer and met Beth, who runs a family-focused green site over at Smart Family Tips.  She asked:

This is where I admit that we replaced our water heater in 2008 and did not choose to invest in a tankless water heater.   I know, I know… I’m supposed to be some kind of energy pro and I didn’t buy one.  Well, if you haven’t picked this up yet from my other posts, I’m more of a pragmatist than a treehugger…

These are the reasons why we chose to buy a conventional water heater:

  1. We don’t plan to own our home for 20+ years. When I considered the annual expected savings gained from a tankless water heater over a conventional electric water heater, the best-case scenario said we could pocket about $50 per year.  (savings with a gas model are closer to $80 per year, depending on your costs per therm)
  2. Even if we did stick around for 20+ years, chances are high that we’d have to replace it before we started seeing a return on our investment. We paid $600 for a conventional water heater versus $2,000+ for a tankless model.  Using our $50/year estimated savings, it would have taken us 28 years to see any true savings. (This assumes we’d pay in full at the time of the installation – charging any of this would lengthen the payback period even more because we would have incurred interest fees)
  3. Electric tankless water heaters don’t perform as well as gas models, especially in the wintertime. They just can’t heat up water like a conventional one can.  I really didn’t feel like going through the insanity involved with running a new gas line just for the water heater.
  4. Many electric tankless water heaters on the market would require we upgrade our electric service in order to accommodate the demand. If you’re just looking to do one floor and the water heater is in close proximity to the use source, this may not be an issue for you.  We live in a two-story house, so we would have required an update to our service.  Call me lazy, but I didn’t want to go through the headache or the added expense.
  5. We couldn’t use our trusted plumber for the job. He thinks they’re garbage and won’t service them.  If we wanted one, we would have had to find someone else.  Considering that, plus the reports that tankless water heaters need to be professionally flushed once every few years to eliminate scale build-up, we didn’t want to start all over again with someone new.

And so, we bought a fat conventional water heater using our guy and paid in full at the time of service.  We did choose one with a 9-year warranty (plus a couple extra years courtesy of Sears) and we check it regularly to make sure everything’s working as appropriate.

If you’re looking to save money on your water heating, choosing a tankless water heater would not be the way I’d suggest you do it.  They’re costly, require a lot of work and probably won’t deliver in a fashion worthy of the hassle.

Instead of going that route, consider some of these quick tips:

  • Reduce the amount of water you need to heat by installing low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators. Most models can reduce the flow by half-a-gallon per minute, resulting in savings of more than 2,000 gallons per year for each person in your family.
  • Lower the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees. For some unknown reason, many people have them set to 140 degrees.  Not only is this dangerous, but it’s wasteful.  You can expect to can save between 3%–5% in energy costs for each 10-degree reduction in water temperature.*
  • Insulate your pipes. This is totally a DIY project.  Most home improvement stores sell pipe sleeves that you can slip on to minimize heat loss, allowing an even lower temperature setting at the heater.
  • Wrap your tank. This is another activity that you can do if you buy a pre-cut blanket from a home improvement store.  Be sure to follow the directions included and you should be good to go.

Thank you, Beth, for asking such a great question. I wish you luck and encourage you to contact me if you have any questions along the way!  A few quick notes before I go:

  • I give advice on this blog that assumes a certain level of handiness on your part.  Please do not mess around with gas lines, electric wires or anything like that if you don’t know what you’re doing.  It’s always best to consult a professional if you think there’s a chance you may burn your house down.
  • I’ll be back next week to answer your questions.  If you have one that you’d like me to answer in a future post, tweet @Renewabelle or get in touch with me one of a few other ways over here.
  • If you have any follow up questions or notes you’d like to add about the information I’ve included today on water heaters, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  I hope this information proves useful and that it finds you well.

RB

Does my thermostat go to eleven?

 

WE’RE MELTING!!!! Seriously, though… The heat’s seeping into our homes like butter into toast and our cooling costs are on our mind.  Can we do better?

Dapper dad Jeff Tippett asked:

The ever-lovely Jennifer Wig (who just started her own business – check it out) echoed:

Nobody wants to spin their wheels, especially when they’re on their way out the door for work, so I’m going to give it to you straight…

Every degree you turn up your thermostat this summer is going to save you money.

 

Bust A Myth…

I’ve heard it said that you’re not really going to save anything because you’re going to need to use more energy to cool off your house upon your arrival than you would have if you just let it stay at your desired temperature.  If you like to keep your house at 60 degrees, this may hold a bit of water.  However, you may save more because you’re not fighting the outside temperatures with consistently running AC.

If you use a window unit, go ahead and turn it off if you’re going to be out of the room it conditions for a few hours or more.  It’ll take less energy to cool the room again than it will to leave it running when you don’t need it.

For whole-home cooling, you’re going to need to wait a bit for your system to get it back to your preferred temperature with making manual changes. Quite frankly, I’m not sure why you’re not using a programmable thermostat, but we’ll get there in a minute.  For now, let’s focus on the money…

 

Bad Bill Rising?

As a general rule, you can expect to save 4% to 8% for every degree you raise your thermostat.  This figure is based on average use patterns for an entire month.  So what happens if you only set it back eight hours a day?

Research estimates that you’ll save about 1% to 3% for every degree you turn it up if you only do so for about eight hours.  If your monthly bill is $100, you’re looking at about $5 to $15 extra in your pocket if you set it back 5 degrees.  While this isn’t a ton of money for a month’s worth of work, there are things you can do to minimize your effort while increasing your savings.

First, get a programmable thermostat.  You can get a decent one now for $30 to $50.  Using our previous estimates, you can be assured the investment will pay for itself in less than a year. (don’t forget you’re going to save a TON on heating costs, too)  ENERGY STAR estimates you can save up to $160 for every year these are in use.

These are not difficult to install.  I swapped both of ours out by myself using only the included instructions and have had no issues with them whatsoever.  The only tricky part is making sure it’s properly gauging your indoor temperature and adjusting the baseline accordingly.  Again, you can do this yourself. Just read the instructions.

Next, you need to program it.  Be realistic about what will make you comfortable and try to kick it up 2 degrees above that to see if you can tell the difference.  We did that in our house and found the difference between 72 degrees and 74 degrees is hardly noticeable.

When we’re not home, I program our thermostat for 83 degrees.  Some will say you can go higher, but I don’t want to freak out my appliances and electronics.  If Gibby’s at home, I don’t go higher than 78 degrees.  I know, I could do better, but really, I’m cool with my bills.  The only thing I’d do differently would be to purchase an ecobee wi-fi thermostat so I could control my thermostat on my iPhone… Someday, someday…

Remember, though, that the point of a programmable thermostat is to let it do the work so you don’t have to.  Do your best to let it do its job and don’t mess with it.  You’ll be saving money before you know it…

Extra Credit…

Ready to take some additional steps?  Here are some quick tips for improved air-conditioning efficiency this summer:

  • Fun with filters. Swap out your filters according to your system’s needs.  Don’t use a three-month filter if you don’t need one – you’ll make your system work harder than it should.  If you’re using one-month filters, be sure you replace them every month. Put stickers on your calendar if you need a visual reminder.
  • Shut it up. Close the air vents in unoccupied rooms. You can either flip the vent switch or buy a vent magnet.  There’s no sense in cooling a room that doesn’t need to be cooled.
  • Be unclear. I’ve installed solar film on my skylights and found a HUGE difference.  (full disclosure: they look like crap with wrinkles and tears, but they work nonetheless) Insulated curtains are going to help, too, but only if you remember to close them.
  • Respect the fan. If you’re in the room, turn the fan on.  When you leave, turn it off.  Remember that fans cool people, not rooms.
  • Give your house some cushion for the pushin’. The amount of insulation you have in your walls is going to determine how your home will respond to outdoor temperatures.  If you can afford to increase your insulation, it’s a worthwhile investment.  Don’t forget: if your pink insulation has black spots, your house is leaking like a frat boy at a sports pub.

I wish you luck and encourage you to contact me if you have any questions along the way!

A few quick notes before I go:

  • Next week I’ll be back with some information on tankless water heaters.  Hit me up if you have thoughts you’d like me to include or address.
  • I’m going to move “Ask Renewabelle” to Thursdays from now on — not only is that a better day for me, but it seems like the response is better when I post later in the week.
  • If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in a future post, tweet @Renewabelle or get in touch with me one of a few other ways over here.
  • If you have any follow up questions or notes you’d like to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  I hope this information proves useful and that it finds you well.

RB

Are CFLs really worth it?

Yo! Thanks for coming back for this week’s “Ask Renewabelle.”  As you hopefully read last week, we discussed the cost benefits associated with unplugging your electronics last week and I immediately received a follow up question from Johnny B. Truant that I had to address right away.  He asked…

I knew I was going to write about it, but then Phil Buckley echoed Johnny’s question with a comment on last week’s post…

Since there are a few myths to bust here, I’m going to go after this one piece at a time…

Livin’ La Vida Verde

When CFLs first came out, many promoted a lifespan of seven years.  Anyone who has used one for a while can probably look back to one that didn’t come even close to that.  The reason is understandable…

If you read the packaging, it probably said it would last 10,000 hours.  To come up with the seven-year claim, they’re estimating you’ll use the bulb about 1,429 hours per year or approximately 27 hours per week.  I’m going to guess you left yours on a lot more than that, which means the bulb isn’t going to last as long.

If you have a CFL that only lasted a year, you got a faulty bulb.  I’d bring it back to wherever you bought it and request an exchange.  I’d also call the manufacturer to let them know.

It’s All About The Benjamins, Baby

Now that we know these really are going to last a while, will they pay off?  In a word, YES.  In a few words, HELL FREAKIN’ YES.  Here’s the science:

  • Let’s figure you’re going to have your CFL turned on for eight hours a day (or night), five days a week.  That’s 40 hours a week (as if you didn’t know this), or 2,080 hours per year.
  • We’re going to take that 2,080 hours and assume you’re using a 23-Watt CFL instead of a 60-Watt incandescent bulb with a 1,000 hour life.
  • If the lifespan of the bulb is 10,000 hours (about 4.8 years using our numbers), you can figure you’ll save 370 kWh over the life of the bulb or approximately 77 kWh per year.  (if you want to convert your own Watts to kilowatt hours, go here for the math)
  • Assuming you pay an average kWh rate (check your bill to run your own return) of $0.10 per kWh, you can expect to save around $37 over the life of each bulb or $7 and change per year.
  • If the average CFL costs $3 each—versus the average incandescent, which costs $0.60 each—your simple payback is 0.2 years.
  • This number is even better if you factor in the $1.20+ you’re going to spend every year on that replacement incandescent bulb, the gas money spent going to the store, your time spent swapping bulbs, etc.  Hassle factor is heavily weighted in my house.
  • The number is even better than that if you’re swapping out an outdoor flood or another indoor bulb with a wattage closer to 100 or more.  I picked 60 Watts for our example because it’s about as low as anyone goes with their wattage.
  • Now, go count the number of incandescent bulbs you have, multiply that by $7 and you tell me if you’re going to save any money by swapping them out with CFLs…

So now you say, sure… I’ll save money, but I heard CFLs are dangerous…

Those Lights Are POISON?

Let’s talk about the mercury issue.  Did you know there is more mercury in your average battery than in a CFL? Yeah.

People freak out about the mercury and use it as an excuse to avoid buying CFLs, but those same people probably have dental fillings containing more of the stuff IN THEIR MOUTH than they’ll find in a bulb.

Check out this article from Popular Mechanics to get the low-down on mercury.

I’ve had CFLs burst on my head.  No, that’s not why I’m freaky – I was like this well before CFLs hit the market.  Wanna know what I did?  I cursed, grabbed a broom, swept up the glass, put it all into a plastic bag from the grocery store and took a shower with my eyes closed.  Easy peasy.

That being said, you need to pay attention to how you dispose of them.  Check out this page from the US Environmental Protection Agency to learn more about proper disposal procedures.  I personally bring mine to Home Depot, which keeps a cute container right by the front door just for CFLs.

I wish you luck and encourage you to contact me if you have any questions along the way!

A few quick notes before I go:

  • Next week I’ll be back with some information on thermostats and set-backs.  Hit me up if you have thoughts you’d like me to include or address.
  • If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in a future post, tweet @Renewabelle or get in touch with me one of a few other ways over here.
  • If you have any follow up questions or notes you’d like to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  I hope this information proves useful and that it finds you well.

RB

Do I really need to unplug it?

Hooray for summer! My family took a road trip last week to Dutch Wonderland and Hershey Park, hence the missing update.  However, I’m back now and ready to tackle your most perplexing energy questions.  And yes, I know I’m posting this on a Thursday.  I’m late sometimes… (that’s what she said – doh!)

This week, I’m taking on a query from the ever-awesome Johnny B. Truant. He asked…

I love this question because it acknowledges that electronics draw power even when they’re turned off or in stand-by mode.  If they’re plugged in, they’re probably sucking energy, hence the term “Vampire Power.”

They Vant To Suck Your Money

A cursory search around the web will show you that this is a very real issue and, while manufacturers of power-saving equipment would have you believe it’s a major contributor to higher bills, my experience has shown that an average consumer will only spend about 5% more if they leave everything plugged in all the time.  That averages out to about $50 extra per year for everything.

Obviously no one wants to throw away that kind of money, but I ask you to remember that’s just an average and expects you to have a few computers, a whole bunch of inefficient equipment and no power-saving measures whatsoever.  I would estimate unplugging a standard cable box every time it’s not in use would save you about $5 per year.

That said, many advances have reduced the amount of energy they’re pulling.  ENERGY STAR appliances and electronics were designed to draw far less power in standby mode than non-qualified items.  Check this out to learn more about how to buy products with low standby power draws.

Some will say that the increased focus on standby mode power use at the manufacturing level is helping the situation.  I disagree.  We have more crap that requires power than ever before, so our increasing volume offsets the reduction for those few items.  Fortunately, there are a number things you can do to stay in control of your power draw without climbing behind an entertainment center or desk…

Bring Out Your Slayer Stakes

Most computers have a sleep setting. Use it. If you want to go one step farther, flip the big switch in the back (if you have one) instead of the “soft” button on the front, which is more of a standby switch than a power button. Learn more about computer management at Climate Savers.

There are also a few different manufacturers offering smart power strips that eliminate the excess power draws experienced in your home or office.  One that I’ve received a lot of great feedback on is the Smart Strip Power Strip, which can save up to 73% of the wasted energy on a computer system if you set it to go to sleep after an hour and keep it plugged into the strip.

If you’d like to take it to the next level, you can reduce vampire power up to 85% with the Power Smart Tower featuring iGo Green® Technology.

You can find out just how much juice your electronics are pulling with a Kill-A-Watt device.  These things are great for predicting energy bills and also deciding which of your items need your attention the most.  Plus, they’re fun in a geeky sort of way.

The Advice You Weren’t Expecting…

Ultimately, you’re better off focusing on more pressing matters.  The amount of time you’re going to spend mitigating energy vampires could have a better bang if you gave your hour to something else…

  • Do you already turn off the lights when you leave a room? Really? (don’t lie… you’re only doing so to yourself here)
  • Speaking of lights, have you replaced all your incandescent bulbs with CFLs or LEDs?
  • Do you already have setbacks scheduled on a programmable thermostat? Do you leave it, or do you mess with it according to your outfit, level of activity, etc?
  • Do you use a ceiling fan to keep you cool instead of kicking up the AC? Do you reverse it in the winter to bring the heat down to you?
  • Do you wash your clothes in cold water? Dry your clothes on a line when possible?
  • Have you replaced outdated refrigerators, washers, and so on with energy efficient models that, by nature, use less than their predecessors?

If you’ve done all of this and still want to go after your vampires, I’d suggest checking out the Berkeley National Labs site on Standby Power.  I wish you luck and encourage you to contact me if you have any questions along the way!

A few quick notes before I go:

  • Next week I’ll be back on the regular Wednesday schedule.  Hit me up if you have thoughts you’d like me to include or address.
  • If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in a future post, tweet @Renewabelle or get in touch with me one of a few other ways over here.
  • If you have any follow up questions or notes you’d like to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  I hope this information proves useful and that it finds you well.

RB