June 17, 2015

Hot Weekend in Boulder / Reducing My Home Energy Bill

This weekend, Adam and I were supposed to go camping… but while we had a blast camping in Arizona two weekends ago, the idea of packing up all that gear again just seemed like a hassle. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to figure out where in Colorado you can camp outside of a campground… I am rather shocked at how little information we were able to turn up on the interwebs, although Adam eventually found some dispersed spots after a ton of research. We’ll put that info to good use sometime soon!

But I’m not paying the expensive Boulder property taxes for nothing; I am quite lucky to live only about fifteen minutes door-to-door from a few trailheads. So staying at home instead of camping meant we could still easily get some solid hiking in all weekend, plus visit a few breweries and also get in some nights cuddling on the couch and watching movies at home. On the hiking front, we headed out to do Royal Arch on Saturday morning followed by Green Mountain on Sunday morning, and it was great to mix in a little bit of the outdoors with some of the amenities of staying in town.

Great sunny views atop Green Mountain! I think this is my favorite local hike.

Although staying home didn’t affect the amount of hiking we did, Adam and I were both kind of dismayed to find that staying home didn’t mean that we enjoyed the creature comforts of my house vs a tent. When my contractor put in the new furnace downstairs, something evidently got messed up with the air conditioner, and so I have been living without A/C for about a week and a half. It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if I had bought box fans for every room, like I had when I was a kid, but I didn’t want to invest in that now for a temporary problem. However, there were a few nights where my house was miserable to be in – and this weekend was particularly bad, with (indoor!) temps in the high 80s. Since Colorado is at such a high elevation, the sun is incredibly strong and heats up the house like crazy during the day. While my house is fortunately very well-insulated and that helps me save on my winter energy bill, it also means that in the warmer months, it can be pretty hard to stay comfortable without A/C! #FirstWorldProblems

But just like we don’t have box fans in every room anymore, there is a lot of innovative technology that can help save money on my energy bill without making me suffer by going without A/C. In my case, it turned out that getting a wi-fi thermostat was a big part of the solution to fixing my A/C at home, since the problem was partially caused by a misprogrammed older thermostat that was allowing the coils to freeze up and prevent any air from getting through the vents and into the house. So I did some research and ended up buying a new Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat to install in my home. At under $200, it was slightly less expensive than a Nest, but offered basically the same cool features – so I was pretty pumped!

Since I travel so much, it’s a little scary to just set the thermostat to one program and then hope it will be fine while I’m away. I love that with my new thermostat, I can check on my house’s temperature from any browser, adjust the programming as needed, and even set up text/email alerts to let me know if anything goes wrong and the house gets too hot, too cold, too humid, or too dry. It definitely makes me feel a lot better about traveling to know that I can still check on my house while I’m away! Plus, being able to control the thermostat remotely allows me to save money by adjusting the temperature from it’s programmed setting to what I’m actually doing, so that I’m not wasting energy running my system when I’m not home.

Checking in on my home thermostat from a browser window while at a client site an hour from home – convenient! I like being able to both monitor what’s happening and change any of the settings without having to be home staring at the little panel on my wall. (And I’ve gotten so used to it that when I was at home and near the thermostat, I instinctively ran up to my computer to adjust the temp – but really, I could have done both!)

On a different energy-saving technology front, houses here in Colorado get so much sunlight that they are prime candidates for reaping the benefits of solar panels. Although I never really saw many solar panels in New York, I’ve noticed that a lot of homes here have solar panels installed on their roofs – to the point where I barely even notice them. Here’s an example:

This house has a fairly low, flat roof, but the size and number of the panels are designed specifically for your home and energy consumption so they can be installed on pretty much any roof.

I love the idea of helping the environment while also saving money – solar panels seem like a great way to further reduce my energy bill! I hadn’t looked into them before since I thought it could get really expensive/complicated to install them. To be honest, I am a bit tapped out on money right now thanks to all the things I am doing around my house (which, to be clear, I am very excited about!). However, I recently learned that you don’t have to buy the solar panels or spend a ton of time researching design equipment. Instead, companies like Sunrun offer solar leasing programs (aka power purchase agreements, or PPAs). Sunrun invented the solar lease model wherein they purchase the equipment, install it on your roof, and monitor/maintain the system throughout the life of the agreement – while you just get to reap the benefits that the system produces. I need fewer headaches with all the house stuff, and I’m impressed that Sunrun takes care of all the maintenance so that I don’t have to. Win win!

The more I looked into Sunrun, the more it seems like a great idea. The only catch is that when you sign up for a 20 year PPA, you lock in your electricity rate and then continue to pay that whether the cost of energy goes up or down. But according to the US Department of Energy, the only region of the country that’s had a drop in electricity prices in the last year is the Mid-Atlantic area (coincidentally enough, where I used to live). For the most part, energy costs are rising, and it’s a lesson from the airline industry that those who hedge against those rising prices come out better in the long term. I still want to do more research into the exact electricity rates I’m currently getting as well as Colorado’s historic electricity rates, but this seems like a great way to harness Colorado’s naturally sunny days and high altitude in order to power my house without having to either pay for it or hurt the environment.

Anyone else have energy saving tips or technology to share? (And if you’d like to enter to win a Nest Learning Thermostat, Sunrun is doing a giveaway here.)

Disclaimer: Sunrun provided me with information about their services, but I purchased the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat based on my own research and using my own money. I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.


12 thoughts on “Hot Weekend in Boulder / Reducing My Home Energy Bill”

  1. Consider that solar lease extremely carefully. You are likely also locking yourself in to escalating lease payments, but more importantly, that lease could be a huge headache for you when you go to sell your home. Google the subject for more details. The solar lease (with Sunrun) on my deceased parent’s home very nearly derailed the buyer’s loan when my sister and I sold. Some people have reported being forced to pay to buy out the lease prior to their home sale.

    It made a whole lot of sense for my parents in the time they had the system,, as it really decreased their power costs, so I’m not knocking solar at all. But look into taking on the loan yourself to pay for the system outright, it might make more sense in the long run.

    1. Thanks for the input, Sheri! I definitely need to do some more research, as I had assumed you’d be able to get out of the lease if you sold your house (the same way you are done with a cable contract or whatever if you move).

  2. I’ve honestly thought somewhat seriously about solar panels for my house. I feel like I’d have to be committed to living there for 8+ years before actually doing it though. (So far, that hasn’t been the case – and isn’t currently the case.) Between that and a Tesla battery, nothing would stop me from keeping my house icebox cold in the summer!!

    The Green Mtn hike was my most favorite hike that we’ve been on for a number of reasons!

  3. I like the idea of putting solar panels on our roof. Do you know if they have to be installed on low flat roofs like the one you shared a picture of? Ours is a two story home with a very steep roof.

  4. I have the Nest thermostat and love it. The only thing I don’t care for is the auto away feature. I’m not sure how it decides I’m not home, but it usually does it when I’m actually there. You would think that it could connect to my phone and know when I’m not at the house and adjust accordingly. Does the Honeywell do that? For now, when I travel, I just reprogram it to a lower temperature — warm enough for the dogs and visiting dog sitter, but not the usual extra warm temps that my body prefers. I know I could save more money if it would be easy to adjust when I just go out for a few hours.

    I would love to have solar, but not sure about the lease and being locked into a rate. I prefer the idea of saving up, shelling out the money or getting a bank loan, and hooking up to a Tesla battery. In reading the information on the Sunrun website, it keeps saying your bill will be “less” even if you make more power then you’re using. Why would a person get a bill from the utility company at all on a particular month if they are selling back more than they use?

    1. The Honeywell one that I bought doesn’t try to detect anything; it just is easy to set from your smartphone, so I usually do that in the car on the way to/from the airport. It is really easy to adjust in that way, but it’s definitely not automatic.

      The Tesla batteries are so intriguing… I will be curious to see when those go mainstream. I agree with you, though, that’s really bizarre that you would be charged at all if you are selling back more than you’re using! Maybe it’s just weird wording and your bill would actually be zero? I know from past experiences with internet companies that even if your bill is zero (or even negative), they still send you a “bill” so you know for sure.

    2. Hi, I know this reply is pretty late, but I suppose it could help someone else that might stumble across this post. The reason you will still get charged if you produce more than you make is that the price they buy the energy from you is usually lower than the price they charge you to buy from them.
      Now, if you are constantly producing enough energy to power your home and are always adding energy to the grid, you should end up with a negative bill. But, most grid-connected solar homes draw energy from the grid at times and put energy back at times. Depending on the price differential, you may or may not end up with surplus.

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