The Hidden Cost of Home Energy Use

By improving your home's energy efficiency, you can profit in three ways: save money, improve your life, and help the earth, and making your home safer and more comfortable.

Annual Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Average House vs. the Average Car: Each year the average house releases over twice as much greenhouse gases as the typical car. House: 22,000 lbs/CO2
                    Car: 10,000 lbs/CO2

Many people believe that their car is the largest single source of air pollution for which they are personally responsible. But in fact, the average home causes the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide—the principal greenhouse gas—as the average car. This is because most of the energy consumed in our homes is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. This pollution is actually a hidden cost for the energy we use, over and above the dizzying $241 billion Americans spend each year on their home energy bills— that's about $2,100 per house!

Much of this energy use is unnecessary because there are a variety of proven, widely available products on the market today (heating, cooling, appliances, windows, lighting, etc.) to drastically reduce your home's energy bills, and accompanying pollution. What's more, many of these products actually improve the comfort and livability of your home.

The example below is for the national average home. Begin a Home Energy Saver session to see an example for your area.

Saving Money

Not only does the environment benefit from using energy-efficient equipment, your wallet benefits too. By using energy-efficient products, such as those with the ENERGY STAR label, you can avoid energy waste and save money on your utility bills.

Residential Energy Bills

Source: Typical home - U.S. Department of Energy, 2009 Buildings Energy Data Book. Savings are HES team estimates.

Think of it this way—whenever you buy an energy-consuming product, it really has two price tags. The first price tag is the initial purchase price. The second price tag isn't so obvious—it's the cost to operate the product over its lifetime. Because this second price tag is hidden in your monthly utility bills, it's easy to overlook. But the second price tag can be large. For some products, it can be even more than the initial price. So when you are comparing models, remember the second price tag before you buy. Products with the ENERGY STAR label come with a smaller second price tag, which means lower utility bills every month for years to come.

When we spend money on new appliances, heating and cooling equipment, or a new home, we want to get the most for our investment. A smart way to make a good investment is to think about energy efficiency. Energy-efficient products often have a little higher initial purchase price than their inefficient competitors. But the higher price is really an investment that will be paid back in utility bill savings for years to come. In fact, investments in energy-efficient products can yield returns higher than stocks, bonds, or many other alternative investments. For instance, buying a high-efficiency refrigerator instead of a standard model can yield annual "interest" of almost 25% on the initial investment.

Living Better

Efficient homes do more than save money and reduce pollution. They're also more comfortable and safer.

The familiar causes of discomfort — humidity, drafts, cold windows in winter or hot windows in summer — are all lessened by improvements in energy efficiency. It turns out that many efficient building components also enhance safety. Insurance companies are even considering offering reduced premiums for homes with these types of features.

For example:

  • Compact fluorescent lamps last longer, reducing the hassle, cost, and risk of injury associated with lamp changes. CFL fluorescent torchiere light fixtures eliminate a serious fire hazard posed by the halogen fixtures they replace.
  • Highly-insulating windows improve thermal comfort, reduce ultraviolet fading of furnishings, are a deterrent to burglars, and cut down on exterior noise.
  • Horizontal-axis clothes washers remove stains more effectively and trim water and detergent bills.
  • Efficient duct systems help eliminate pressure imbalances in homes that can precipitate indoor air quality problems such as backdrafting of combustion appliances or the entry of radon gas into the home.
  • Well-insulated ceilings can prevent the formation of damaging rooftop ice dams, and the danger of roof damages or falling icicles.
  • Well-insulated crawlspaces reduce the likelihood of frozen water pipes.
  • A comprehensive effort to make the home's walls, ceiling, floor and windows more efficient pays off in terms of a smaller (and thus less expensive) furnace and air conditioner.

Other examples of these "non-energy benefits" are listed here.

Helping the Earth

We all depend on using energy as part of our daily lives. But when we use products that waste energy, we harm the environment. This is because most of the energy consumed in our homes and offices is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. When these fuels are burned, they release air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particles that contribute to smog, acid rain, and respiratory disease. Another pollutant, carbon dioxide, contributes to global climate change.

The evidence clearly indicates that we are already witnessing the effect of human activity on the global climate. Carbon dioxide emissions from energy use, including the generation of electricity, are the largest world-wide contributor to global climate change. Disruptions now linked to climate change include an increase in the number of severe temperature and rainfall episodes, stress on water resources, and the degradation of natural ecosystems. The consequences span almost every domain of society: our settlements, health, agriculture, and even energy systems.