Most Americans live their lives at least partially by the numbers. Fitness buffs track their heart rates and body-fat percentages. Dieters count calories, carbohydrates or PointsPlus. For golfers, it’s strokes and handicaps, while texters deal with the confines of character counts. However, outside of Hollywood green-living activist Ed Begley Jr. and his neighbor, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, there aren’t many who religiously track the kilowatt-hours they use.
That’s what makes the Kimbel family — home building contractor Vince, his CPA wife Angela and their 11-year-old son Jordan — so unique. They know, to the penny, how much it costs to keep their new, all-electric home in Jeffersontown’s Stone Lakes subdivision running every day, year-round. Thanks to separate meters in their basement, they can break their LG&E bill down into heating and cooling, hot water heating, and appliances and lights. And later this year, with the help of “smart” appliances and energy-management software, they’ll be able to monitor how much they’re spending to cook, wash their clothes, clean the dishes and keep the refrigerator operating at 37 degrees.
That may sound a trifle obsessive, but the Kimbels are actually well-positioned for a change in the way utilities charge customers that could make kilowatt counting the new national pastime.
Power companies are expected to provide a continuous, reliable supply of electricity 24/7. However, actual demand for power waxes and wanes hour to hour. Typically, usage peaks from afternoon to early evening, and power companies must be able to handle that peak load. Today, LG&E customers pay a flat fee per kilowatt-hour regardless of when they run the vacuum, so there’s no incentive to conserve at certain times of day. But in the future, they might find themselves paying a premium during peak hours and less during non-peak times. The goal of this carrot-or-stick pricing, says LG&E spokesperson Chris Whelan, is to smooth out demand and delay the necessity for new power plants. “The less you use, the less we have to generate,” she explains.
For the past three years LG&E has been conducting a pilot study to see how customers react to paying different rates at different times of day. They’ve equipped 2,000 households in their service area with “smart meters” — in-home display devices that show in real time what they’re spending on electricity. Though final results won’t be reported until this spring, the utility’s July 2010 Power Source newsletter stated that, on average, “these customers reduced their usage by 1.35 kilowatts per peak-usage period (generally speaking, from 1-6 p.m.). Whelan also notes that overall satisfaction with time-of-day pricing has been good. “Sixty-two percent of folks who are on it are extremely satisfied and 29 percent are somewhat satisfied,” she says.
Smart appliances, such as the GE Brillion-enabled appliances in the Kimbels’ kitchen and laundry room, take conservation a step further by reacting to signals from the power grid. During high-cost hours, they go into power-saving mode. That means delaying the start of the dishwasher, washer and dryer; delaying the refrigerator’s defrost cycle; disabling the self-cleaning feature in the oven; and reducing cooktop power by 20 percent until the price of electricity goes down.
Vince Kimbel is anxiously awaiting GE’s spring rollout of its Nucleus Home Energy Manager. Designed to work in concert with smart appliances, the device, which will retail for $149-$189, will display the Kimbels’ real-time energy use on his smart phone or computer and break down electrical usage by appliance. “The whole purpose is to educate consumers about their energy use to make smarter choices,” explains Gregg Holladay, national account manager for energy-efficient products at GE Appliances and Lighting.
Kimbel, as this magazine has reported before, has been walking the talk on energy conservation since building Kentucky’s first Energy Star-rated custom home in 1999. To casual passersby, the 3,225-square-foot house he lives in today “looks like a typical house, but hidden inner features make it super-efficient,” he says.
What’s so special about these features? “First and foremost, we used foam insulation . . . to control air sealing,” he says. Though any foam insulation will perform, he prefers Icynene because “it’s water-based, an excellent air barrier and makes the home healthier to live in.” High-performance windows and doors are another special feature. Kimbel selected Andersen windows, based on their low U-factor and solar-heat-gain coefficients.
The exterior walls are built from structurally insulated panels (SIPs), which reduce thermal conduction and are “stronger than traditionally framed walls. You can kick one and it’s like kicking concrete,” Kimbel says.
The foundation is made from Superior Walls’ pre-cast concrete panels. They offer several advantages over poured-in-place foundations: built-in insulation to reduce energy loss; integrated drywall-ready concrete studs; and waterproof concrete that keeps basement interior walls dry. The panels can cost a couple thousand dollars more, but like other engineered building products, they’re “dimensionally accurate,” giving the house a great foundation to start building on, the builder says.
To maximize energy efficiency, Kimbel installed a WaterFurnace geothermal system for heating and cooling and a GE GeoSpring water heater — a heat pump/electric hybrid slated to begin mass production at Louisville’s Appliance Park late this year. At $1,600, the GeoSpring is pricey, but its operating cost beats everything else out there, including gas and tankless models, Holladay asserts, adding that it’s an easy, energy-saving change to make in existing homes already equipped with electric water heaters. With combined federal and state tax credits worth $550 available through the end of this year, Holladay estimates the payback at just three years.
Choices like these earned the Kimbel house a score of 40 on the HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index, which means it uses 60 percent less energy than homes built to present building code standards. And that can make counting kilowatt-hours kind of fun. On average, the Kimbels spend $31.17 a month to keep their home at a comfortable 72 degrees year-round, $4.72 for hot water and about $89 on lighting and appliances.
“When building or renovating a home, more people need to install energy-efficient product options as a long term investment,” says Kimbel, “because these homes will be impacting the world we live in for a very long time.”