Household Energy Consumption and Successful Energy Education

by Don Ames,

behavior choices

Two homes constructed the same year, sitting on the same city block, with similar households, can have vastly different energy costs. The furnace can be the same and the water heaters carbon copies, but one household can effectively control their homes energy costs and the other household produces an energy bill, shamefully, out of control.

This is about insulation levels and how well the ducts are sealed, but it is even more about household behavior, energy education, and putting your best, energy-saving, foot forward. This is about parents passing down environmental concerns and expectations to their children and then to grandchildren. It's about people that lived through the great depression and know the benefit of reducing waste and living with less because that was the only choice.

One thing I've wondered, is it easier for a rural farmer, who picks tomatoes and corn out of his own garden, to be energy wise and interested in controlling energy consumption, or is it easier for the Central Park native that buys food from an asphalt fruit stand to understand the importance of conservation?  Do you need to know how many tits a cow has before you can be frugal with a gallon of milk?

Which household is more apt to have had the benefit of ongoing parental household energy education? Is it the farmer, as a result of being close to nature and the environment, likely to be the energy saver and need less energy education? On the other hand, perhaps the person that lives in the high rise is more aware of energy consumption and the amount of power it takes to keep a big city running.

Energy educators and power companies have a big job as they work to provide energy education to all kinds of households. Since every household has the potential for both saving energy and reducing energy waste, the energy education challenge is to design a program that can be successful for all households.  The gentleman farmer that lives by the creek in the green valley can benefit from energy education and the bank teller in the duplex by central park can also.

If people are aware of energy-saving tools and behaviors, they can, within limits, control their energy consumption and curb energy waste. Consumer education then becomes one of the most cost-effective conservation measures available. Educators work to bring consumer education to the people in four essential areas. The subjects remain pretty much the same, but the approach may vary according to house location, income status, and resident expectations.

energy education

Energy ED and Behavioral Decisions:

Behavioral decisions is the Energy Educators biggest challenge when providing household energy education. It is the biggest challenge - yet the area with the most potential. People are simply set-in-their-ways and making behavioral changes is a slow and difficult task. How do you get a person to take a shorter shower with a low-flow shower head when they are accustom to relaxing for hours under the hot flow of water with enough water pressure to make a noticeable divot in the skin? The person feels slighted and abused. After all, just how much energy does it take to run a darn shower for an extra twenty minutes anyway?

To change energy wasting behavior, educators try to make a direct connection between the shower they love and the power bill they hate. People learn from their own experiences and their own power bill. Ideal learning opportunities occur when residents make a decision, perform a task or behavior, and do it with their wallet in one hand and their power bill in the other. The educator is often more successful at getting the behavior changed if it is connected directly to the power bill.

Therefore, to change energy behavior, the household needs to have power bill education and a complete understanding of the information that is available on almost all monthly statements. To connect real dollars and cents to behavior is the best way to change wasteful behavior.

Energy ED and Comfort Perceptions:

basic comforts

Whenever my daughter complains about a simple hardship, like having to walk home from school in 50 degree weather, I mention her ancestors and the Oregon Trail. If walking home in mild weather was a true hardship, we would still be living in Europe somewhere with everybody else.

A lot of people would like to throw the energy educator out the door the minute they mention 68 degrees and thermostat in the same sentence. Are we all getting ridiculously soft or are the comfort levels we have come to expect simply a dividend of having someone else live in a covered wagon for 4 months.

The energy educator needs to take a two fold approach here. One is to re-train the household into realizing that some comfort expectations are not really needed comforts and the second is to point out that the lack of comfort can have more to do with the lack of air sealing then the setting on the thermostat.

Once the household blames comfort problems on the lack of insulation and the holes in the heating ducts instead of the size of the furnace and the out-of-adjustment thermostat, the household can get back to saving energy in comfort.

Energy ED and Household Operation:

Chances are if you don't know what the brake pedal does and where it is located, you shouldn't be trying to drive the car. You can get in the car, stick your elbow out the window, start the car rolling down the road, but it's all going to be wasted when you can't get the car stopped. Remember, car insurance covers dents and missing bumpers, but home insurance doesn't cover energy waste.

Energy education needs to provide training on where your homes brakes are located and how to use them. Only with an understanding of basic home energy systems, can the household use those systems in a more energy efficient manner.

The challenge of the energy educator is to provide the household with a basic understanding of how their homes energy systems work and how they work with each other. With the broad differences in homes spanning more than a hundred years, this is no easy task for the educator.

The household is like the child with a huge, connect-the-dots puzzle in front of them. The educator completes the challenge by connecting all the energy system dots in a home until they make a complete picture that is understood by the household.


Energy ED and System Maintenance:

Now that the Energy Educator has provided information on the energy systems and how they work together, he or she needs to provide training on the benefit of maintaining those systems. A car that can get 50 miles per gallon will not be able to realize that great fuel mileage if the tires are flat.

With the coming cold weather, the Jones's decided it was time to finally have insulation installed under the floor. Their feet have been cold long enough and warming their feet was contributing to huge increases in their power bill. Insulation was installed under the floor, but the foundation vents were not repaired which allowed critters to enjoy the newly insulated underfloor as well. As the critters rearranged the insulation, placing a lot of it in the dirt, most of the benefit of installing insulation was lost by not properly maintaining both the insulation and the vents.

One of the most important maintenance items is the heat pump. Households get lulled into a sense of having great energy efficiency once they have the benefit of a heat pump.  The energy educators job is to provide information on the importance of having a Heating Contractor service the heat pump system once a year to get the most energy efficiency from the heat pump every year. Once you get a Prius, don't maintain it it like a John Deere and drive it like a Mustang.

Not an easy job this thing called energy educator. The homes are all different and the household behaviors range from Covered Wagon to Queen Elizabeth. Energy Education remains the most cost effective measure available to both households and power providers for saving energy and increasing energy efficiency.  How we live in our homes and how we react to our desired comfort level has a lot to do with the size of our power bill.

So, how much does it cost to stand in a hot shower for an extra twenty minutes? Well, that depends. Fresh water from the hillside spring and a solar water heater, stand there until the clouds come over or the sun sets. But if your taking a shower in the drought region of Texas, pumping the water through a filter and then twenty miles uphill to a forty story high rise, don't take a shower at all, stick to a sponge bath.

More from Don Ames at

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Tags: conservation, education, efficiency, energy, save, weatherization


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Comment by tedkidd on November 14, 2011 at 5:34pm

I don't know, I think prescriptive behavioral "solutions" are a lot of what it wrong with how we approach energy "solutions".   If you clear people off the ship's deck, does the reduced wind resistance really save energy?  Really?


Energy Saving Strategies that have no means of measuring savings are like the Register Booster that promises to "save energy year round".  The thermostat that promises to reduce your bill by 30%.  Just this side of fraud (somehow).   Homes are very individualized systems.  A behavior that saves you money may cost me money.  Once we can actually see what people are using and track to behavior (very small energy opportunity) and efficiency improvements (very big energy opportunity), then we will begin to have clarity about what opportunities for energy savings really are.  


If you are saving, show me your numbers or it's smoke without substance.  No proof?  Of course not, it's too hard by design, utility companies prefer you not keep track.  


Wanna see how my car does on the highway?  In the city?  Mixed?  Cost per mile?  Total gallons?  


We need to measure, and make those measurements transparent so everyone can see.  People know my TDI get's 40mpg, but they have no idea what MPG my house gets.  And if I told you I burn under 900 therms a year, what would that mean?  


How about therms per sf?  Per occupant?  The last 4 years I've bumped set point 1f per year, no measurable change in consumption.   I track all these things.  But tracking is a royal pain, and the analysis is even more challenging.  Once this is easy everybody will want to watch.  


Many of these one size fits all behaviors might be system inappropriate or implemented so backwards that they actually waste energy.  Sure, turning a light off will save over leaving it on.  But I think seeing that savings and being able to show it to others is what will provide real traction.  


We need a way for people to continuously monitor and compare their home's mpg with everyone else's home.  Folks getting 10mpg might just want to know how they are doing, and right now that's a lot harder than simply recording your mileage at each fill up.  



Comment by Kent Mitchell on November 14, 2011 at 5:12pm


Good blog Don!  An observation- if the homeowner is in an extreme climate, or has high energy costs they are much more inclined to educate themselves about energy usage.  Here in the NW our natural gas prices just dropped again and electricity is doing a faux drop in cost (long story).  So the effect is - people here put energy savings pretty low on the totem pole!  A few know that low costs can't last are investing in energy efficiency but most will wait until the costs skyrocket.  At that point we'll be in the position to charge a lot more too! 

Comment by Tom Strumolo on November 14, 2011 at 11:20am

If we have 75 million houses to get upgraded, we can't wait for customers to get a clue before getting the envelope work done.  I'm an expert in energy education and energy behavior and I know their limits.  Besides (and no offense, Don, this is an exquisite piece) when we focus on behavior and "elucidation" it sounds like we are saying, "this is your fault."  The magic is figuring out how to get houses sealed and insulated with controls for dummies - despite the customers' bad habits and whole-system inertia: Maine sent all their field personnel through sales training (Dale Carnegie) and had spectacular results.

Comment by Dennis Cheslik on November 3, 2011 at 10:42pm
Excellent post! Very well said. Getting people to alter their behavior and habits is real tough. For example: I still struggle with friends and relatives that can't even learn how to recycle properly.
Comment by Christopher Cadwell on October 26, 2011 at 12:17am

Hey cool blog. Some great stuff to consider.


Re comfort: I just concentrate on what is important to the homeowner: Being more comfortable and having nicer stuff, and ohh yeah, I can save you a little energy while we are at it.

Comment by Don Ames on October 24, 2011 at 2:03pm
Hey Bud, thanks for the comment, we do have a lot of work to do in this country to provide good efficient housing. I noticed the picture took up most of the excerpt space and there wasn't much to let people know what the article was about. Great suggestion, I will work to do better in the future. Thanks again,  Don Ames
Comment by Bud Poll on October 24, 2011 at 1:32pm

Hi Don, I love the pictures :).  The sad part is I know of some that still have smoke coming out the top and the people inside call it home.  There is no way to make it energy efficient and if you tear it down to start over they will never have a place to call home.  We have a lot of work to do in this country.

Now, you need to learn to tweet.  You present a TON of good information, but most readers won't get past the first sentence.  You can still offer the long version, that's the web page, but between the title and first line or two you need to convey 80% of your message so people can move on.

I know blogs are blogs, and I'll admit I'm poor at creating the necessary short version, but it is important.


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