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Renewable energy is getting more and more attention as people are becoming aware of our finite natural resources. Solar is my favorite, since I’m such a sun-lover. I have installed solar hot water at my house, and after only six years, the system will have paid for itself, and my hot water will be free!

The best way to save money with solar hot water or solar electric (PV or photovoltaic) is to cut back on your energy use first. You’ll save money doing this in preparation, then you will save again by installing a smaller system. Think of it this way: If you are an energy hog and install a big system and THEN start cutting back, your system will be too large for your needs and very expensive to install. So reduce your energy consumption first, then start shopping around for an appropriately sized system.

Get an energy audit

Begin by conducting an energy audit. Look at your bills for the last year, and figure out how many units of energy you use for each – kWh for electric, BTUs or therms for gas, and gallons of water. Figure your average monthly usage for each utility. When you talk to a solar installer, s/he will want this information.

You can also hire a Certified Energy Rater to do an energy audit. The benefits are:

  1. You will get recommendations on how to increase your energy efficiency. It will also state the ROI for each one.
  2. Because your data is input into software, results can be adjusted as you do upgrades.
  3. If you are applying for an energy-efficient mortgage, a rater’s report will be necessary. Find a local energy rater through RESNET.

Once you know how much energy you use, tackle the list that follows. Don’t do all of them at once, or you’ll get overwhelmed! Try one or two at a time. Call your utility companies, and ask for advice on curbing energy use.

Do another energy audit in 3-6 months. If you need to keep at it, check again in three more months. Continue conserving, until your bills are as low as can be without sacrificing your lifestyle. Once you have cut back to your satisfaction or that of your energy rater, start calling solar installers.

Consider alternative energy systems

Get a quote for a solar system from a certified professional, and ask for advice. Maybe s/he will have more ways for you to conserve energy and save money. My solar installer suggested I bring in natural gas from a new subdivision next to my property. This saved me a lot of money, but I wouldn’t have thought of that on my own!

Energy Conservation Measures

Tighten up your home’s envelope.

  • Add insulation to your ceiling and subfloor.
  • Insulate your ductwork.
  • Install window coverings to keep heat out in summer and in in winter. > Caulk and weatherstrip doors and windows.
  • Replace old windows with energy efficient, low-e windows.

Reduce electric usage

  • Unplug small appliances and electronics when not in use, or put them on a power strip that gets turned off.
  • Turn off lights in rooms that aren’t being used.
  • Replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs.
  • Replace old appliances with Energy Star appliances.

Save on heating and cooling

  • Replace furnace and AC filters as recommended.
  • Plant shade trees on the hot south and west sides of your home.
  • Turn your thermostat down in winter and up in summer.
  • Upgrade to an energy efficient furnace with an AFUE rating of 85-90%.

Save on water heating

  • Turn down the thermostat on your hot water heater, but don’t keep changing it from high to low. That is not efficient at all.
  • Put an insulating blanket on your hot water heater.
  • Use low-flow faucets in kitchen and bath.
  • Take 5-minute showers. > Wash clothes in cold water.
  • Hang your clothes on a clothesline or racks.
  • Install an on-demand (tankless) water heater.
  • Buy a front-loading washing machine.

Remember, you will save money over and over by cutting back on your energy use, by being able to install a smaller solar system, and finally by generating some of your own power with renewable energy.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.