The nation's power supply system more and more often can't meet the demands of a nation in the throes of the largest economic expansion on record and conservation, the first line of defense against higher prices, may be the only short term solution.

Electric company deregulation isn't working and several years of consumer price spikes and brown outs is culminating in alerts for scheduled blackouts to prevent the power drain from forcing regions into total darkness -- without warning.

Heavy demand during an expectedly harsh winter, short energy supplies, power plant outages and other continuing woes led Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Consumers Union (CU) to chronicle the crisis in "Reconsidering Electricity Restructuring: Do Market Problems Indicate A Short Circuit Or A Total Blackout?".

The report largely blames attempts to deregulate the electricity power industry for the ensuing crisis and warns of it continuing as a long term problem.

Energy experts are strongly advising more households to conserve their power use.

Holiday conservation

Die hard households that turn their homes into cathedrals of light during the holidays may not want to hear it, but one of the easiest ways to cut back on the power demand now, when supplies are thinnest and needed most, is to use fewer, smaller Christmas lights and to use them less often.

It's not enough to replace those older, larger 5 to 10 watt bulb strands of light with smaller 3 and 3.5 watt bulbs. The miniature lights consume less energy per bulb, but the smaller bulbs are more closely spaced.

Energy experts say use fewer strands and turn them off more often, especially during the power rush hour from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. when demand peaks. Plugging them into a timer will help prevent you from forgetting when not to use them.

Many households also wrap lights around the tree, which requires more strands than zig-zagging the strands down the tree.

Also avoid the new power-draining holiday image projectors that cast Santa's visage on your garage door and use more decorations that don't require lights -- potted chrysanthemums, evergreen wreaths, flags, etc.

Take down holiday lights sooner this year.

After Santa departs

When the holidays end, the energy crisis won't. Tried-and-true conservation techniques always rule.

Begin with an energy audit. Your local power company likely offers free or nominal-fee audits to check the efficiency of your heating, cooling and hot water appliances as well as the condition of windows, doors, caulking, weather-stripping and insulation. The audit also acquaints you with routine maintenance techniques for your heating and cooling equipment and provides you with information about thermostat controls, hot water temperatures, empty-home conservation techniques, plugging air flow leaks, and more.

The Alliance to Save Energy offers an online "Home Energy Checkup" and related information and services.

Major energy savers

With or without an audit you should be aware the best energy saving techniques include tightening your home against the elements.

These relatively small remodeling jobs pay off not in value returned to the home but in savings on your energy bill.

"Except for the windows, you do not see these things, but all of them make the home more comfortable and more efficient," said Ken Willis, president of the League of California Homeowners.

  • New double- and triple-paned, argon gas-filled and sealed Energy Star windows, doors and skylights reduce heating and cooling costs and block out harmful pollutants and disturbing sound. Your windows and doors may look fine, but if they aren't the latest energy efficient models, they aren't doing the job they are supposed to do.
  • Caulk, weatherstrip or otherwise seal the hundreds of cracks and gaps in your home's framing and exterior. The numerous holes for plumbing, mechanical equipment, electrical wiring, exhausts and venting create leaks that let air in or out and account for 25 and 40 percent of the energy used for heating and cooling a typical home, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Also examine roof flashing and other areas where pipes, wires, vents and other elements protrude or make a break in the surfaces of your home. Seal duct leaks at joints and connections, including connections at the heater or air conditioner.
  • An insulating barrier in the walls, floors, ceilings and attic keeps out excessive heat and cold and provides even temperatures between rooms. The Energy Star program recommends increasing the "R" insulating factor beyond that required by local building codes in your area. Don't forget to insulate plumbing, water heaters and ducts. Also, even if your home has sufficient insulation, incorrect insulation or damp insulation renders it less effective.
  • Also look to the Energy Star program to assure your heating, cooling and ventilation systems are the latest, most efficient systems. Consider replacing systems that don't carry an Energy Star-rating if they're more than seven to 10 years old –- even those in fine mechanical working condition. Automatic thermostats and a balanced ventilation system allow your heating and cooling systems to work at peak efficiency. Likewise, replace outdated major appliances (refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers, dryers, etc.) with Energy Star models.
  • Finally, to help keep the lights on, change the ones you use. Wherever possible, replace heavy use incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. While fluorescent lights cost more initially, they last longer and burn cheaper than incandescent bulbs. Compact fluorescent bulbs use about 25 percent of the energy of incandescent lights to produce the same amount of light. Incandescent lights use 75 percent of the electricity they consume to produce heat, not light.
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