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The rising cost of energy caught many Americans by surprise and -- in the midst of unprecedented individual wealth -- we're talking about energy conservation again. Regardless of how we got where we are (I'll forego the political soapbox -- for the momment), household conservation just makes good financial sense.

Actually, our consumption of energy on a house-by-house basis has dropped over the past few decades. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that average on-site energy consumption per household dropped 27 percent between 1978 and 1997 while the number of U.S. households increased 33 percent.

The above stats are even more remarkable when one considers that U.S. housing units have increased markedly in size during the past two decades. The percentage of homes with 6 or more rooms increased from 41 percent in 1978 to 49 percent in 1997.

This drop in energy usage demonstrates the more efficient housing being built in today's market as well. Between 1978 and 1997, households using microwave ovens climbed from 8 to 83 percent; dishwashers went from 35 to 50 percent; and personal computers went from non-existent to 35 percent.

The National Association of Home Builders Research Center reports that over the last 23 years, building materials and construction techniques have also accounted for energy savings.

Here's why:

  • Increased insulation in walls and attics;
  • Insulated exterior doors and windows; use of insulated doors increased from 44 percent in 1978 to 85.2 percent in 1999, while use of insulated steel doors increased from 35.9 percent to 87 percent in 1999;
  • Foundation insulation, which reduces energy loss in one of the last remaining major "sinks" in the home and provides warmer, more comfortable floors;
  • Appliances and plumbing fixtures that conserve water and require less energy for heating needs;
  • High-efficiency refrigerators that conserve more energy than older models and rely on refrigerants that have much less impact on the ozone layer;
  • Dishwashers that use 40 percent less energy and clothes washers that use 45 percent less than models manufactured in 1972; and
  • Passive solar design that captures the sun's rays to provide "free" heat.

So why the energy crunch? Well, again, I promised no soap box although -- suffice it to say -- the No Growthers won this time and consumers will keep them in office till energy costs skyrocket because of faltering power plants and low fuel production. There, I said it. Now don't you feel better?

In the meantime, here are a few tips to help make your house more energy efficient and to cut back on consumption -- and these are good ideas despite the price of tea in China or oil in Kuwait. Here's the list.

  • Turn up the thermostat in the summer and down in the winter.
  • Check and change the heating/a/c filters monthly.
  • Switch to fluorescent lamps where possible.
  • Look for air leakage throughout the house, which can account for 30 percent of the overall heating and cooling load. Use weather stripping, storm windows, foam sprays and other products to seal cracks and holes throughout the house.
  • Check the insulation levels in the attic and crawlspaces. Add more where needed.
  • Change the manufacturer's hot water temperature setting down to 115 from 120 degrees F.
  • Change energy use habits (while possibly the hardest to implement, it's actually the cheapest). Turn off lights not in use, take shorter showers, only run full dishwasher and clothes washers with full loads, etc.

M. Anthony Carr is a Washington-based author who has written about real estate issues for more than a decade.

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