Vineyard Unplugged: A free energy audit helps one family cut work hours

By Martha Shaw

Bart Smith’s electric meter doesn’t spin so fast these days, thanks to the energy audit he and his wife Liza had done on their house.

Island residents Liza and Bart Smith have achieved nearly a 40 percent reduction in their electric bill as a result of the free home energy audit sponsored by Cape Light Compact and funded by NStar.

Last winter, when the Smiths first heard about the offer, they called to set up an appointment right away. As home-based business owners, Liza and Bart saw an opportunity to lower their overhead by saving energy.

“We’ve been looking for ways to simplify our lives,” says Bart. “It occurred to us that if we cut back our kilowatt-hours, we could cut back the hours we work paying for them. For us, energy efficiency translated to time off.”

Both of them admit that the incentive to consume less energy in their home also came from a feeling of responsibility to the environment and from their own love of nature.

“I not only wanted to save energy to reduce our bill,” explains Liza. “I wanted to support an effort to dramatically decrease the Island’s energy dependence. We know there is a finite supply of fossil fuel, and we know how much it pollutes our air. Because of the effects that has on the world, I don’t feel right wasting energy.”

Historically, the term “conservation” has conjured up an image of deprivation and sacrifice. But by contrast, the new buzzword “efficiency” focuses on being smarter, and using better technology.

The free energy audit gives households a clear direction on where to shave off kilowatt-hours here and there without giving things up.

The auditor first does a complete energy inventory in and around the home. All major appliances, machines and electronic equipment are metered. An assessment of air current patterns within the house is conducted to look for energy leaks. After this, the auditor writes a report and makes some recommendations.

The Smiths learned how much each machine in the house was costing per year and how to cut those costs. The auditor pointed out areas where they could redirect the airflow to stop heat from escaping into the walls, out the windows, or up the flue. The analysis is comprehensive and offers incentive programs that help cover any costs involved, by way of discounts on more efficient technology and by subsidy of labor costs.

Because the Smiths are renting their home, they chose things that didn’t involve construction or buying new appliances. What surprised them was how much they saved just by being more aware of watt wastage. They were amazed at how a missing outlet cover could generate a major current of warm air into the walls and up to an attic.

An action they took immediately was to replace their light bulbs, which accounted for $291/year according to the auditor after analyzing their electric bill. Right on the spot they were given free fluorescent bulbs that use only a third as much energy. They also learned that turning lights off more often, and by shutting down computers, monitors, appliances, the dehumidifier, and their electronics when not in use made a much bigger difference than they thought. Unexpected discoveries included how much energy is used by remote sensing devices that stand ready on demand, and by how little energy a TV really uses.

At the time of the audit the Smiths were using about 1,200 kilowatt-hours per month, much to their chagrin. The average house uses closer to 500. They looked at it as a challenge.

“It was fun. Over the next few months we began to look forward to getting our electric bill to see how our progress was coming,” says Bart.

Four months later they had achieved savings of 40 percent without spending a dime.

With the Cape Light Compact incentive coupon, they could have saved another 10 percent by buying a new refrigerator for $600, he added. That would mean they had doubled their efficiency, cutting their consumption in half.

The Smiths recall the whole experience as making them feel great about playing a part in a mission they share with Vineyard Unplugged — to reduce the Island’s energy dependency. Many islands around the world share the same vision, the ultimate achievement being energy neutral — consuming only as much energy as is produced. Based on the success the Smiths had with so little effort, that sounds more promising than one might expect.

Free energy audits are available to all households on the Island. To sign up, call 800- 797-6699. For more information on Island energy programs and ways to benefit by using renewable energy and energy efficiency, go to

This series is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project, through a grant from the Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach and renewable energy projects that serve as models for other communities. Martha Shaw is a member of Vineyard Unplugged, a citizens’ energy group organized after the Community Energy Workshop in April 2003. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.