Home Efficiency Champions
Co-op homeowners reduce energy usage and increase efficiency.
Cotton Electric Cooperative members Heather Whitlaw and Travis Armstrong took steps to reduce energy usage and increase their home efficiency. Photos by Laura Araujo
For Whitlaw and Armstrong, making changes has helped them to create a dream home that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also comfortable, efficient and affordable.
Energy Audits help member-owners identify key areas for savings.
Many cooperatives offer low-interest energy efficiency loan programs to help make improvements over time.
In March 2015, Travis Armstrong and Heather Whitlaw purchased a house near Lawton, Okla., intending to renovate the 2,900 square-foot property and transform it into their dream home. However, their visions for the home quickly met reality when they received their first electric bill.
“Our electric bill was through the roof,” Whitlaw says. “We knew we had to do something to reduce our energy usage. We decided to do everything we could to increase our home’s energy efficiency and make our bill more manageable.” The Cotton Electric Cooperative members undertook a complete update of the 1980s construction. They painted pink walls a neutral color, installed wood-look tile flooring, re-bricked an outdated fireplace and installed dark wood cabinets and bright granite in their kitchen. At the same time, they made a number of unseen improvements to create a more comfortable and efficient dwelling place.
Creating a dream home
One of the primary steps the couple took was to contact Cotton Electric Cooperative’s power use advisor, Mike Stephens. They scheduled a free energy audit and worked with Stephens over a period of two months to improve their home’s efficiency.
Stephens performed a thorough audit of the home, inspecting everything from the crawl space and attic to the furnace and chimney. An infrared camera shot at the home’s exterior walls revealed one of the structure’s major issues—lack of insulation.
“We could see the heat coming through the walls. It showed the temperature to be 115 degrees,” Whitlaw says. According to Stephens, lack of insulation is a problem he finds in many homes.
“Their home is beautiful, but there were so many things that were overlooked when it was built,” Stephens says. “I advised them if they put insulation in the house, they could save as much as a third on their energy bill.”
A blower door test to measure the airtightness of the structure disclosed another problem—air leaks throughout the house equivalent to leaving a window and half open, all year-round. They took measures to seal and insulate HVAC ducting and used silicone caulking to seal around air vents, lighting, windows, doors, electric switches and outlets. You pay a lot to heat and cool, so it doesn’t make sense to lose it in the ducts,” Armstrong says. “We could tell a difference immediately.”
Stephens also helped Armstrong and Whitlaw to understand how both of their thermostats—on the first and second floors—were being impacted by light streaming in through skylights and high windows. For less than $200 in total, they purchased special fabric covers that allow light to pass through the glass without obstructing the view from inside, but prevent heat from entering the house. In the winter, they remove the covers and utilize the sunlight to heat their home.
Outside the home, a couple more changes helped with energy savings. A backyard pool pump had been running constantly. Stephens advised them to schedule it for 12 to 13 hours a day, during specific times. They also replaced an extensive network of wired backyard lighting with solar-powered lights that don’t use any electricity.
“Mike helped us to understand our home much better,” Whitlaw says. “It didn’t cost a lot to do the things he recommended and the energy savings have been tremendous.”
Not only has the energy audit improved the efficiency of their home, it has also made Armstrong and Whitlaw more conscious about how they use energy. They program their thermostat to reduce heating and cooling demand when they are at work; they run major appliances when energy is the cheapest, rather than during peak hours; they unplug appliances when they’re not in use to prevent them from drawing unnecessary current, and they installed surge protectors to easily turn off power in areas of the house that aren’t in use. In addition, they regularly monitor their energy usage via the SmartHub smartphone app.
For Whitlaw and Armstrong, the changes have helped them to create a dream home that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also comfortable, efficient and affordable.
Slow and steady changes
Choctaw Electric Cooperative members Jerry and Jane Speck have lived in their 2,400-square-foot home near Broken Bow, Okla., for 22 years. Over time their electric bill—like most things—had increased. Seven years ago, they decided to talk to the co-op about what they could do to save money.
“We had been looking at our electric bill, wondering what we were doing wrong,” Jerry Speck says. “We saw in our monthly magazine that Choctaw Electric does free energy audits.”
The Specks scheduled a comprehensive home audit with Choctaw Electric Cooperative Member Services Representative Brad Kendrick. Afterward, Kendrick took time to explain his findings to the couple.
“He sat down and talked with us intelligently. It was a good conversation—not just him saying, ‘This isn’t good and that isn’t good,’ even though there were things we could improve,” Jerry Speck says.
Some changes the Specks implemented over the years were major upgrades—new windows, a metal roof, energy efficient appliances, LED bulbs throughout the house and insulation in the attic.
“We couldn’t afford to do everything he recommended right away,” Jerry Speck says. “We have slowly made the upgrades over a period of time. Each step along the way has made it better.”
Kendrick says that like the Specks, many members aren’t able to implement all of his prescribed changes at once. To enable members to make repairs, Choctaw Electric has instituted a low-interest energy efficiency loan program. Members can borrow up to $10,000 for changes that will make their home more energy efficient; up to $2,500 of that can be used to replace old appliances with Energy Star-rated electric appliances.
“A lot of our members have taken advantage of this program to replace old windows, doors, or add insulation and they’ve seen true benefits from it,” Kendrick says.
Other changes the Specks made were easier to implement. They became more conscious of how much energy they were using and when they were using it. They avoid running appliances, like washer and dryer, during peak hours when energy demand is higher and costs are greater.
“Brad talked to us about our thermostat and that has made a big difference for us,” Jerry Speck says. “We program it for 78 when we’re gone in the summer and 68 in the winter.”
At Kendrick’s recommendation, they put timers on their water heaters so they’re not running constantly. Their swimming pool pump now runs for 12 hours and is off for 12 hours. They also unplug appliances that aren’t in use.
“We’re glad we did the audit, though I wish we would’ve done it sooner,” Jerry Speck says. “It has helped us to become financially wiser and better members of our co-op.”
For the Specks, gradual but steady changes over the years have helped them realize savings of more than 25 percent to their electric bill. They have learned even though energy prices might not be in their control, the amount of energy they use can be.