Editor’s Note: This is a guest contribution as part of our Sustainability Scavenger Hunt series. Read more here, and download the fun activity book for families and classrooms!

By Mark Lydon, CEM, Energy Advisor with Franklin Energy

Every day, a house or apartment gets purchased with grand aspirations of beauty, style, coziness, warmth and fond memories. The papers are finalized, the boxes and furniture are brought in and the countertops become loaded with the minutiae that define life. Energy costs are an accepted burden of home-ownership—often begrudgingly regarded as an immutable operating cost that will be dealt with “next spring.” And due to that perceived difficulty, very little does change until the sting of a high bill or the zing of a cold draft prompts the dweller to action.

How, then, to prioritize this action? Answers vary depending on the goal: comfort, cost control, building durability, or a combination of all three. Through common sense and simple math, we can arrive at a reasonable understanding of easy, non-invasive improvements that are accessible to all.

Start with the On/Off Switch

Energy usage is a function of two variables: time and power. Simply put, the lowest bills result from low-draw appliances being used for short amounts of time. And since that time variable is up to us, that’s where to begin. Wall switches and on/off buttons are a ubiquitous and known technology. Start here because you already have them and they offer immediate return.

Smart Thermostats

Internet-enabled thermostats and other devices are a very reasonable means to control your furnace or other equipment when you are not at home. These devices detect your phone’s proximity and can learn or be taught when to operate. Reduced operation translates to real dollar savings but does require an operator learning curve. Investment: $150 to $250 and requires wi-fi access.

Dress for the Weather

While it may seem obvious, the most cost-effective means to reduce the heating or cooling load is to dress for the weather. In the winter: invest in wool or silk base thermal layers (long johns). In the summer, remove those layers and cool off with a light breeze or ventilation before turning on expensive air conditioning.


After appliance control, the second best measure is lighting. LEDs are now mainstream and, in many cases, have become the default lighting choice due to high quality illumination, long-lifespan, low maintenance, low operating costs and falling purchase costs. Prioritize replacing bulbs in fixtures that are lit the longest: kitchen, sitting area, dining room, etc. Any dusk-to-dawn lighting should be also primary targets due to long operation. Replacing incandescents (glass bulbs with filaments) with LEDs offers better savings than replacing compact fluorescent lights (CFLs – spiral shaped), but you’ll likely find that installing LEDs of one consistent color provides peace of mind knowing that this task won’t be necessary again for many years. Investment: $5 to $8 per lamp.

Taking the Next Steps

After you’ve addressed the low hanging fruit of lighting, appliances and heating/cooling, the bigger investment opportunities are next.

First, keep water out. Maintain the roof and gutters because energy efficiency in a wet or rotting structure is a losing game.

Second, seal any air leaks with rigid sheathing material or spray foam—especially to the attic since that’s where the temperature differences are greatest.

Third, insulate that attic to at least R39-49. Costs for air sealing and insulation vary greatly depending on many factors and frequently have paybacks beyond seven years, but they also offer excellent resale value and immediate comfort gains.

After addressing that attic, go to the basement to view where the foundation meets the walls. That sill box area is where the above grade walls tuck into the foundation walls, much like where a shirt tucks into trousers. Where that shirt is untucked, a cold draft ensues. Tighten up the sills with spray foam by carefully following manufacturer instructions to air seal. Value here, again, will be realized at resale and with immediate comfort gains. Economic payback is long-range, but peace of mind here is worth the effort.

Check with your local utility rep to see if they offer incentives to help defray costs, such as for installing Energy Star appliances or conducting an energy audit. Many utilities offer incentives at point-of-sale or through contracting trade allies. Building envelope incentives are available, too, and are usually offered through certified building performance installers who monitor safety and air quality.

The decision tree can feel like a constant game of choose-your-own-adventure. Fortunately, however, due to market demand and evolving technology, the choices have become easier to make. Behavior changes, easier controls, LEDs, air sealing and attic work are leading the way. The time to act is now—before that next bill or heat wave.

If you invite Mark to a house party, he’ll ask to see your attic (to the chagrin of his wife). A novice home-brewer and meat-smoker, he can be found on most weekends somewhere in Southern Wisconsin enjoying the hikebikeskichainsawfarmchorefixfilmetc good life.