Saving energy is great, but so is saving money.
The best tools and tips can offer both, according to local businesses, whose lines of energy-efficient products and services are expanding to meet demand for saving green and leaving smaller carbon footprints.
For local homeowners looking to make major investments, changes to greener living often are motivated by long-term financial stability, said Jason Grottini, operations director at Envinity Inc. in State College.
“For most, it has a lot to do with comfort, investing in a house they know they will be in for a long time,” he said. “There are a lot of people motivated by minimizing their impact on climate change or costs, too. They don’t want to have to worry every winter about their heating bill. It’s a way to stabilize their cash flow.”
The design-build firm creates greener homes from blueprint to finished product, incorporating advanced building envelopes, high-efficiency mechanical systems and passive solar energy, a technique that positions a home and landscaping to collect the greatest natural benefits of sunshine through trees and shrubbery that are bare in winter and offer shade in summer.
“We build all our homes to exceed Energy Star standards for a new home — above and beyond insulation requirements,” he said. “Energy Star is just slightly above modern code requirements. Building to those standards should be the energy norm.”
For homeowners who are not building or remodeling but still want to find ways to save, Grottini said that an energy audit is a useful first step — and energy savings may be closer than they think.
“It is the smallest investment you can make, but it gives everybody a capital improvement plan for their house,” he said. “It will outline all the other investments they can make and identifies all the opportunities to reduce energy usage.”
Changes can range from free or low-cost measures — turning thermostats down or plugging in holes in an attic — to bigger impact changes, such as improving air sealing and insulation.
“Replacing heating and cooling equipment with high-efficiency equipment is a next step,” he said. “We’re trying to get people off oil and propane as a standard service. Those prices are too volatile for people on fixed energy budgets.
Once those changes are accomplished, it can be time to consider renewable energy sources, such as solar, he said.
“That’s our path to getting people to net zero energy,” Grottini said.
The company also is installing geothermal or insular radiant systems — with a hot water loop under the slab of the home — and combining that with passive solar to create a higher-efficiency system overall.
The push toward solar panels has slowed, Grottini said, but still can offer a long-term return on investment.
“Solar has definitely slowed down in Pennsylvania, but we’re still installing one system every month or two,” he said. “It has a lot to do with economics. The price has come down dramatically. The incentives like the state’s rebate program have gone away, and the renewable energy credit market has dwindled.”
A 30 percent federal tax credit for homeowners still is a good selling point, he said.
Return on investment for solar is in the 12- to 15-year range — still worth considering because the systems have a 25-year warranty.
High-efficiency windows can help make the most of natural light, too, if solar panels aren’t in the budget, said Dave Hannon, a 16-year sales rep for the State College office of Pella Window & Door Co., which in 2008 was Energy Star partner of the year for window manufacturing.
“About 70 percent of the people who are after replacement windows and doors are after a marked improvement in energy efficiency,” he said. “The others are more concerned about aesthetic.”
For homes built before 1979, return on investment with new windows could be realized more quickly because those older windows usually are single-pane glass or double pane without the current manufacturing standards, Hannon said. Pella’s offerings now are triple-pane and available in wood, vinyl and fiberglass, which can offer the tightest seal for the Pennsylvania climate.
“I would expect people who replace their windows and doors now from that time period, that it would be a less than a 10-year return on investment,” he said. “I hear of people with $600 or $800 gas bills. I won’t say it cuts it in half, but it’s a double-digit saving.”
When it comes to appliances, Energy Star is more standard than standout nowadays, said Eric Walker, store manager of the Home Depot in Patton Township. Most products get more energy efficient each year and prices have started to normalize, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a differentiation between manufacturers,” he said. “Very common large company manufacturers hold themselves to a higher standard. When you find off-brand names, you see quality decrease and efficiency decrease.”
Heat sources often offer the greatest impact — if a budget allows for one household switch, he said.
“The efficiency ratings of HVAC units now are so much better,” he said. “Once you’re to the tune of 10 to 15 years old — and you choose to replace that — the efficiency has increased so much that the unit can pay itself off in four to five years just in savings, for each type: oil, gas or electrical. If you buy a new boiler for $7,000 to replace one that is 10 or 15 years old, it can save you that in four to five years.”
Pellet stoves still are among the hottest commodity, Walker said.
“Pellet stoves have been an exploding market in the last three to four years,” he said. “People are buying those to augment their primary heat source, but then those become the primary source. We see that a lot.”
In fall, pellet stove installations rival LED purchases, he said.
“I think right now, most homeowners are interested in the cost savings of what they’re purchasing versus carbon footprint, but you get both benefits with pellet fuel,” Walker said.
And more homeowners are catching on to another new potential energy-saver, Wink, a program that allows up to 30 household items to communicate through wireless technology.
The product can be connected to thermostats and allow consumers to control their homes’ temperatures from their cellphones.
“If you were pretty conscientious, it could pay for itself in two to three months,” Walker said.
Similar to better appliances, consumer demand has changed paint products.
“Almost every paint we carry is a low (volatile organic compound) mixture,” he said. “It was constantly requested by the consumer, who wanted the safest paint out there, especially when there were only one or two lines of paint like that. It was a selling point. It’s great to see these sort of things become industry standards.”
Low-flow toilets make an easy conservation step, said Barry Noll, plumbing specialist at Lowe’s in Patton Township. One model uses about 1.28 gallons per flush, compared to the standard 1.6. Overall savings vary, of course, by the number of family members in a home and flushing frequency.
“They are all in the same relative range,” he said. “They’re not astronomically different, so it can be a good choice when you’re looking for a new toilet anyway. Aside from water saving, it saves you money on your utility bill.”
Simple — or elaborate — lighting changes can cut costs and help homeowners conserve, said Carla Reck, lighting designer in the lighting design center Friedman Electric, which has a location in State College.
“The basic things are dimmers and timers,” she said. “By changing how you control the lights, you can save some energy in how much you are using or in how much is running. That’s something you can do that with your light sources now.”
If cost is an issue, switching to LED in one area at a time can help make the expense more palatable, she said.
“Instead of the whole house, start in rooms where you get a lot of use,” Reck said. “If you’re using a 14-watt LED, you are getting approximately the same as you would with what would have been a 60- or 75-watt incandescent bulb. That’s pretty significant.”
Some energy companies still are offering rebates to make the switch, too, she said.
The cost for an LED bulb can run around $35, compared to around $1.25 for an incandescent bulb, but energy expenses for the pricier items over a 50,000 hour period can shrink by more than 75 percent, according to an estimate at eartheasy.com.
For families who are not ready to make a major switch but want to be more environmentally friendly, many look to kitchen scraps as a great place to start, according to the Penn State Extension’s Master Gardeners of Centre County, who work to educate the public on composting.
Worm bins — vermicomposting — require regular attention, said Master Gardener Suzann Tedesco, who often recommends simply taking those composting efforts outdoors.
“If you look up indoor composting online, most sites just talk about collecting kitchen scraps for transfer to outdoor compost piles,” she said. “That is what I teach when giving a workshop. Even during the winter, things can be added to the pile to await warmer weather when the micro-organisms get back to work breaking down the organic material.”
Still, she does handle questions on vermicomposting.
“Many show an interest in vermicomposting, especially as something to do with their children,” she said. “However, I have no idea if many really do it. With the borough green recycling program, many kitchen scraps in State College are going into the green bins to be picked up curbside.”
Though the authority’s crews sort material in the red bins, paper can be problematic. In Centre County, homeowners can recycle all mixed paper: newspaper, tissue boxes, cereal boxes, junk mail or office paper.
“We really like for them to either bag or tie up their paper,” she said. “It’s actually for the safety of our guys.”
Homeowners sometimes forget to look outside the kitchen, too, Schirf added.
“Things like laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles sometimes are overlooked,” she said. “A lot of times, people would go by the number — only ones and twos. Now we say if it’s a narrow neck plastic bottle or jug, we’ll take it. We don’t really care about the numbers anymore.”
Another change: It’s not just plastic bags that can go back to the grocery store. Abagslife.com offers tips and locations for dropping off non-container plastic items.
“Any kind of plastic film, if it’s clean and dry, can go,” she said. “You don’t realize how much you have until you actually start collecting it.”