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Living unplugged: Los Altos Hills environmentalist slays energy 'vampires'

Photo By: Photos by Elliott Burr/Town Crier
Photo Photos By Elliott Burr/Town Crier Los Altos Hills resident Steve Schmidt uses a PG&E SmartMeter and flash water heater to reduce energy consumption.

While conducting an energy audit of his Los Altos Hills home a few years ago, environmentalist Steve Schmidt gave his teenage daughter Justine a project – and a kilowatt meter.

“I asked her to check all the things that were plugged in, thinking it would only take her a couple of hours,” he said. “It took her weeks.”

Justine discovered 93 energy-consuming devices, including a guest-room VCR that hadn’t been turned on in years.

“It was absurd,” said Schmidt, a mechanical engineer who has been a “software guy” for 30 years.

So Schmidt and neighbor Peter Evans, head of the Los Altos Hills Environmental Initiatives Committee, developed a way to analyze and identify costly energy leaks that provide little or no value. Their collaboration led to the creation of the High Energy Homes Project offered by Acterra, a Palo Alto-based environmental non-profit group. Schmidt created the software for the program.

Designed specifically for larger homes with energy bills averaging $700 or more a month, the program is available to homeowners in Los Altos Hills, Atherton, Portola Valley, Monte Sereno and Woodside. The towns and a grant from the California Energy Commission fund the Acterra program.


High-energy Hills

Los Altos Hills proved a prime target for the High Energy Homes Project because it placed third in energy use per household of the 225 towns PG&E serves.

Through a free online analysis of PG&E bill data, the program creates an energy profile for the home and highlights low-cost energy-saving ways to reduce utility bills and conserve energy.

“The savings on average are $1,000 per year for each home-owner who has signed up,” Schmidt said.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the heating and cooling system or the size of the house that runs up the energy bills, it’s “all the stuff we have,” Schmidt said. Electronics, heated towel racks, steam showers, computers, the extra refrigerator in the garage – even heated diaper-wipe containers.

One of the biggest culprits is the pool pump, which can account for 30 percent of the energy bill if it runs too long.

And then there’s the continuous hot-water recirculation pump.

“These things are evil,” Schmidt said. “By putting a timer on them, you can save $600 per year – and a timer only costs $20.”

Another way to have the convenience of fast hot water but save energy is to install a Chilipepper, a small hot-water pump that mounts under the sink. At the touch of a button, hot water is pumped rapidly to the sink or shower without wasting water – a boon if the water heater is located a long way from the bathroom.


Vampire hunting

To help track down electricity “vampires” – electrical items that suck up energy even when they’re turned off at night – Schmidt suggests getting a kilowatt meter, which can be checked out at some libraries.

He also recommends adding a smart strip to the entertainment system, which automatically shuts off devices not in use.

Participants in the High Energy Homes Project receive tips like these after an energy audit is completed. The audit starts online via a secure website. If the data from the home energy profile uncovers an unusual pattern, a home visit may be scheduled. Acterra will provide follow-up for one year and help implement suggestions.


Happy homeowners

Debi Curley is one happy Los Altos Hills homeowner who has benefited from the audit. She switched to a variable speed pump for the pool sweep.

“The pump draws very low current while running at a low rpm and keeps my pool clean,” she said.

Curley also removed a 20-year-old side-by-side refrigerator/freezer and replaced it with a new low-energy model.

In addition, the audit identified “idle usage” of electricity in her home – “battery chargers constantly plugged in, amplifiers for stereos constantly on, old burglar monitoring equipment still plugged in.”

When she compared electricity bills for the May 2011 through February 2012 period with May 2010 through February 2011, consumption decreased 29 percent. Her home’s idle mode was down 25 percent.

“These reductions equate to real dollars at Tier 4/5 pricing per kilowatt hour that I no longer send to PG&E each month,” Curley said.

For town resident Duffy Price, the most beneficial aspect was learning what to do with an old refrigerator and outside lights she’d been leaving on all night.

But perhaps more important was “going through the process of reviewing my bills for electricity, gas and water and entering them into the program,” Price said. “I recommend the program to residents who have pools and big families.”

To qualify, Los Altos Hills homeowners must have a SmartMeter, willingness to share PG&E bill data for the previous and following 12 months, a year’s residence in the home and no solar photovoltaic system (the meter used will not provide needed data).

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Top ways to save energy dollars annually

• Reduce the pool filter pump run time (run times can be cut during winter months), saves $950 per year.

• Replace the hot-water recirculation pump (convert it to an on-demand model), $600.

• Add smart strips to the media center/home office (kill off those vampire loads), $415.

• Put the hot-water recirculation pump on a timer (reduce to four hours per day), $400.

• Change the thermostat setting by 1 degree (lower in winter, higher in summer), $336.

• Upgrade the old refrigerator in the garage (especially if it’s more than 15 years old), $240.

• Switch to compact fluorescent lights or LEDs in the family room (estimate based on six bulbs used five hours per day), $1,914.

• Add a digital timer to a whole-house system (e.g., whole-house audio de-energized eight hours per day), $173.

• Unplug one rarely used appliance (bar refrigerator, ice maker, wine cooler), $160.

• Install a programmable thermostat (usually reduces heating and cooling by 10 percent), $109.

– Carolyn Snyder

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