Recessed lighting and energy efficiency

We had an energy audit done on our house (free from the utilities company!)

We thought he’d go around the house with a fancy heat gun checking for drafts or something, but he didn’t.  But no, first order problems don’t require any fancy equipment.

What were his main suggestions?

1.  Put a tent over the stairs to the attic on the attic-side in the air conditioned access part.  He was shocked that we have attic access from inside the house and not just from the garage.  This has turned out to be difficult because there’s an inconveniently placed pipe up near this access point in the attic.

2.  Do something about the old-fashioned recessed (bucket) lights.

3.  Get black screens for our sun-facing windows.  (These look pretty creepy from the outside, like the windows are painted black, but our HOA must allow them because all sorts of folks in our neighborhood now have them.)

The recessed lighting has a light in a can, basically.  The cans (from before 2004) have holes in them because if they don’t, then the lights get so hot that it’s a fire hazard.  Because of the holes, the hot attic air comes down into the house because of some sort of pressure convection thing.  When the air conditioner is on, it pressurizes the house which means it blows cold air up into the attic.  Not only that, but these lights are supposed to have no insulation within three inches so that things don’t get so hot that they catch on fire. When people do temperature readings, you can see where the recessed lights are.

Since then, they’ve made new models that don’t have holes that you can put insulation up against.  Also compact fluorescent lights and LED lights are not as hot as regular lights.

He said, we’d really like to seal off those holes.  Our choices:

A.  Switch out with the new cans.  They may not be air tight but it’s better than just the holes.  Just like any fixture, they have a light shape and maximum wattage.  Their maximum wattage is lower than the old-style cans, but that’s clear on the can.  With this option, you can also do B because the cans themselves are metal and still transfer heat into the house.

B.  Buy covers that are insulation tents that you can just drop over the cans.  These can be used with the old-fashioned hot bulbs, but you have to be sure to open vents within the covers for safety reasons.  But then there’s a hole again.  With the modern lights you don’t need to open the vent.

C.  Tape off the holes in the current cans.  You can only do this with the low-wattage bulbs.  The internet is full of horror stories about what a bad dangerous idea this is.  We have opted not to do this one.

We have 9 of these recessed lights.  DH switched out 7 for LED and 2 for compact fluorescent (we’d already swapped those out when the previous bulbs burned out).  Finding them in the attic was difficult– one of them was buried in insulation underneath the air conditioner and took 20 min to find.

DH is concerned that if we just do option B that at some point in time someone will put in a bulk that the fixture says is ok, keep the vents closed, and it will start a fire.  Who?  Maybe a tenant or someone who buys the house after us… something small probability but a scary one.  We could remove the tents prior to someone else living in our house, but we’d have to remember to do that.

So most likely we’ll go with option A and option B combined and have an electrician do it.  DH has been banned from home wiring projects after a mishap wiring a fan.  (This ban is ironic given his educational background and the other types of home improvement projects he has not been banned from.  But an alive husband is the most important thing.)

How much will that cost?  Well, the new LED lightbulbs cost ~$30 each, so ~$210 for that.  The new cans are ~$10/each, so ~$90.  The tents are ~$15/each on the direct webpage (the amazon link above is more pricey), so ~135.  We’re not sure how much an electrician will cost– that’s something we need to find out.  But this little project will most likely cost more than $500 total.  How long will that take to pay for itself in lower utility bills?  No idea!  But our summer energy bills are pretty awful, so it might be less time than we think.  If only we could also do something about the water bill.

Have you done an energy audit?  What do you do to keep your energy costs down?

24 Responses to “Recessed lighting and energy efficiency”

  1. everydayhas Says:

    Wow, you had me scared for a moment, as we are getting ready to install can lights for a basement project. But they’ll be new, and also not installed with attic above.

    The best energy project I ever did (in a previous home, built in 1940) was install a second layer of insulation in the attic. Prior to that, the A/c couldn’t even keep up in summer. It was great. However, if your can lights are buriedd in insulation, you may not need this!1

  2. bogart Says:

    We have never had an energy audit, though we have tried to use, you know, common sense to identify problem spots.

    What do you pay in utilities? I have just checked, and it looks like we are paying around $80 for electric (which is everything except heat), and have so far spent $350 for natural gas (also $100 for firewood) this winter — which is pretty much over here, so that’s pretty much the cost for a year’s heat. Arguably overstated slightly as we pay — $7? $10? — per month just to have gas service at the house at all.

    So. Clearly if we reduced that, we could buy more nice cheese, and that’s important. But not LOTS more nice cheese, so — is it worth the effort? I’m not sure.

    What we do: keep the thermostat settings modest — 64 when we are awake during the day (usually, we did go as high as 68 on some days when it was cold out and we were grouchy), 52 when we are away or asleep. I keep the heat turned off (vent closed) in the guest bedroom, unless it’s needed. Our addition is separately controlled and we keep that off too, unless ditto. We had a Quiet Cool Whole House Fan installed in the addition when it was built last fall, so I am hoping that will also prove helpful — it is set up with a programmable switch, so when summer rolls in we’ll be able to have it turn on at 3 a.m. when thing are at their coolest. Right now I’m using it on afternoons when things get warm, which is about 1:3 (warm:notwarm) at the moment. It helps.

    DH controls the a/c (within reason) as he feels the heat a lot more than I do, and we (he) can’t sleep in the heat the way we can in the cold. But our house has good shade around it, which helps some, and I’m hoping the fan will help further (though humidity is also a problem).

    Our house has lots of natural light, so we mostly don’t need lights during daylight hours (depending, but we can use them minimally). I’ve tried to be strategic in where I’ve placed those LEDs we’ve bought, e.g. DS keeps a light on all night so he gets one. We do other stuff, like hang clothes to dry.

    Our home was built in the 1970s cheaply, so a picture of energy efficiency it is not.

  3. Mrs PoP Says:

    I don’t know how much ceiling you’re going to have the handyperson/electrician take out to do the work, but if it’s a big chunk, here’s what we got for our kitchen recently that is super easy to install when things get opened more. Might also be possible for retrofits, but I’m not sure.

    Halo H7 housings certified for contact with insulation and built to be air tight. They are super simple to install if you remove enough of the drywall on the ceiling that you have access to the wooden drywall strips or ceiling joists. (Easy for us since we currently have no drywall on our kitchen ceiling at all.)

    Then for the actual light source, we went with these 10Watt (equiv 65 Watt light) LEDs that happily went on sale for 50% off the day I went to finalize the purchase. They should produce very little heat, and their lifetime estimate is ~50 years.

    Between those and the R-30 batt insulation that’s going to be over them, I think we’ll be set and not need those tents, all for about $25/can.

  4. Leigh Says:

    The LEDs make a huge difference in the electricity bill! And they actually turned out to be brighter than the previous bulbs we had. Upgrading our programmable thermostats from the stone ages has also made a difference, I think. Some of the energy improvements I did have been offset by a second person’s electronics though…

    I haven’t done an audit, mostly because the utility company only subsidizes them for single family home owners, not condo owners.

  5. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    Reinsulating the attic cut our gas bills by roughly half, even though we haven’t yet done anything about the leaky windows. I am amazed at how much we’ve cut the electric bill just by replacing bulbs with LEDs as they burn out. And replacing 3 old toilets with modern ones cut the water bill enough that they will pay for themselves in 3 years (besides appeasing my drought-influenced sensibilities).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’re at the point with one of our toilets that we think replacing it may pay off in a relatively short time just in terms of the cost of not having to constantly replace the internal parts. (Only literally though if you put a price on time cost and aggravation.)

      • Debbie M Says:

        Do it! I love my new toilet. (Okay, it’s not new anymore and I don’t even think it’s made anymore, but I still love it.) Aggravation reduction is important!

        And make sure you check if your city has any subsidies. Hot places are often in trouble with water supplies and may subsidize you.

      • Rosa Says:

        we replaced our toilet as part of our general bathroom remodel a year and a half ago and it is so worth it. We bought the Consumer Reports best buy model, which cost $100. Then I got a fancy schmancy toilet seat for $35. It uses a lot less water per flush than the super old one and it has yet to have a leak, which was where the old one was costing us lots and lots of money – slow leak & then refill, over and over, that a number of parts-replacing fixes didn’t fix.

        Toilets are so cheap! I don’t know why I had them classed with appliances in my head.

  6. Debbie M Says:

    Fascinating. I would never have guessed that about recessed lights. And our attic access is also from inside the house, but we don’t have stairs, just a small hole with a cover that we push up into the attic (from a ladder we bring inside), so it might be difficult to add the tent. (I couldn’t even imagine what you meant by tent, so thanks for the link.)

    I got an energy audit when I first moved into my house because my utilities company offers them for free. As a result of that, a lot more insulation was added in the attic, plus some crappy stuff, I forget what it’s called, to keep air from seeping out around exterior doors. We declined the screens.

    Then I think I got another energy audit when I replaced the central AC. They put in even more attic insulation and this time did put the screens on the windows. Those screens were attached in such away that basically nailed our windows shut. We weren’t opening them anyway because our aluminum window cranks are stripped after all these decades and because we have furniture in front of many of them, but that was still mean.

    We have put film on our west-facing windows–just holding the film up against the window felt like suddenly standing under shade. (We don’t have south-facing windows.) And sometimes tinfoil in August (spray the window with water to help it stick, then tape the edges–we are expert because we’ve practiced preparing houses for the game “Murder in the Dark.”) And I’ve planted decidious trees.

    I like the idea of longer eaves, shutters, more insulating curtains, and even a covered patio across the back to add shade. Now that solar panels don’t have to be wired in parallel (or whatever the change is that makes it okay for some to be shaded sometime), I’m thinking of getting those. We could also try insulating our water heater. I also want to go around the house with a candle to see where air’s coming in.

    Behaviorally, we keep the A/C off when we’re out of the house. We keep it as hot as he can stand it in the summer (with ceiling fans) and as cold as I can stand it in the winter. So he wears minimal clothing in summer and I wear sweaters, socks, shoes or slippers, and maybe hats in winter. We may get a window A/C for the bedroom so we can turn off our central AC for most of the night. We use the toaster oven instead of the big oven when possible (it is a pretty big toaster oven). We wash our laundry in cold and hang the clothes dry. (We have no dryer connection, but I find that socks and undergarments last longer without a dryer, so now I don’t even want one. The crunchiness wears off quickly once you wear the clothing or use the towel.) And we don’t use hair dryers. But we do have a lot of other stuff plugged in and turned on, so there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

    I have not noticed fluorescent or LED bulbs reducing our electricity usage, but I’m glad this is a thing that really works for people. I’m about to replace the fridge and washer again, and again with more environmentally polite appliances.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      oh, the windows… we’ve planted a lot of crepe myrtle. We looked into the film and DH even bought some, but then he decided not to use it and took it back. I’m not sure where we stand on that right now. We may end up getting the window covers some year.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Mmmm, crepe myrtle. Pretty and has surprisingly dense shade. I used to eat at a cafe that had tables under a bunch of crepe myrtle trees, and it was actually half way comfortable in summer.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Insulate the water heater, heck yeah!

  7. Donna Freedman Says:

    We’re planning to upgrade the windows (big bucks, yikes) and DF already changed out the attic insulation after an energy audit. The storm doors could be of better quality, too.
    My daughter and her husband recently spent $3,500 to improve energy efficiency. They noticed an $80 drop in the electric bill right away. Which is what I keep telling myself about those pricey windows: Over time they will pay for themselves, plus you’ll feel fewer drafts.
    And up here we not only insulate the water heater, we strap it down in case of earthquakes. Good times!

    • Rosa Says:

      our new windows didn’t help the heat bill much, but they did make it so we could comfortably sit in our living room in the winter instead of having to move the couch to an interior wall away from the breeze.

  8. Sarabeth Says:

    We just got a quote for $10,000 worth of energy efficiency improvements. Gulp! We absolutely need some of them – we had bad ice dams this year, which tore off some of the gutter, and need more insulation in the attic to avoid that happening again. But we are weighing how much to add in other parts of the house. It’s not going to save us all that much money – our energy bill maxes out at $250 or so, and is $100 in the months with no heating or air conditioning. We live in a place with super-cold winters, so even a very efficient house is going to run the heating system regularly. On the other hand, if we will break even over time, we’d rather spend the money on energy efficiency than on buying electricity and gas, which have big negative externalities.

  9. life_of_a_fool Says:

    My neighbors and I (small condo building) had an energy audit this fall and discovered our (old) building is un-insulated! It never occurred to me this was possible! But, they have excellent subsidies, so we’re on the list to get insulation. Just as soon as the snow melts. I am so excited!!! Only disappointed we didn’t get it straightened out to do it before this winter (or before I moved here). Up until now, I’ve just tried plastic on windows (only so effective with cats), plugging drafty parts around the windows, etc. (if it’s not obvious, heat is my issue much more than keeping it cool in summer. I rarely use a/c).

  10. Cloud Says:

    Our most dramatic energy savings came from blowing insulation into our walls. Apparently, in 1940s San Diego, you didn’t need insulation! Blowing in the insulation dramatically cut our heating bill. We use our heater much less frequently now.

    The next thing we should do is something about our water heater- either go tankless or go solar heated or something. We’d also like to add solar panels. But these are both expensive options, so will have to wait.

  11. ArchGal Says:

    I’m an architect. Based on your description, I’d suggest the following modifications.

    1. Seal the interior access route to the attic and insulate.
    2. Get a retractable awning (south facing) or exterior shading like sudare (south/west). You want to block heat before it enters AND not feel you need to turn on lights inside to compensate.
    3. Definitely replace with a good LED can.

    The attic may have more to consider…venting, etc. Not all assessments are alike.

  12. J Liedl Says:

    The first thing we did for energy efficiency was to update the furnace and A/C. We’re also replacing all of our windows and doors. The biggest of those have been done and now we’re moving onto the bedroom windows this summer before tackling the rest of the windows on the east face of the house. Lined curtains on the windows that face full west are a real help when the sun shines low on the horizon and threatens to scorch the interior (conversely, in our really cold winters, those help with eliminating any chills that seep through the double-paned goodness.

  13. Replacing more light fixtures | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] few years ago, we had an energy audit and replaced all our bucket light fixtures with cooler, more efficient ones that would allow us to insulate the holes they created in the ceiling.  (The electrician DH tried […]

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