Homeowner shines light on negative electric bill

If you think your electric bill is high, imagine lowering it.

Now imagine changing that dollar amount you owe into a negative amount, meaning the City actually owes you.

That’s exactly what one Austin homeowner is able to do through a handful of eco-friendly modifications to his house – many of which can be applied to your own home, and for a lot less money than you think.

At first glance, W. Gaines Bagby’s home in Northwest Hills doesn’t look much different from any other.

But it’s Bagby himself who has made it unique.

“I was noticing my electric bill, and I said I wonder how I can get that down,” Bagby said.

Bagby is a commercial realtor specializing in environmentally-friendly buildings.

“Going way back to when I was a kid, I was in Cub Scouts,” Bagby said. “One of the things we did was we made a solar oven. We put aluminum foil in it and when we put it out in the sun and faced it the right way, you put your hand in there and it was hot! Instantly, I was interested.”

That interest carried over to adulthood – into his very own home.

“Just like a lot of people, I’d been asking my wife and kids to turn off the lights when they leave,” Bagby said.

But they were hesitant to comply.

“I look around and there are all these lights burning. I’m like ‘(agh) again!'” Bagby said.

Taking matters into his own hands, he replaced lights in his home with more efficient LED versions. Six of these use less energy than just one conventional lightbulb.

Also added? Occupancy sensors – for about $20.

“And so if people forget to turn off the lights, that’s okay – I’m doing it for them,” Bagby said.

Taking things a step further, Gaines also installed solar panels that sometimes produce more electricity than the house uses.

“When we flipped the power the first time, [the meter] went back the other way,” Bagby said. “And that’s the excitement.”

In improving your home’s energy efficiency, it’s also important to keep in mind the small things. Having a carafe on your coffee maker made of thermally-insulated material – as opposed to glass – will also help you save on your electric bill.

Another cheap tip? A $30 programmable thermostat that runs the air when you’re home, and shuts it off when you’re not.

“It’s probably gonna pay for itself in a couple of months,” Bagby said.

Walk upstairs to the attic in this Northwest Austin home, and you’ll find a foil covering called a radiant barrier in place of traditional foam or “cotton candy” insulation. This barrier is two to three times more effective than traditional insulation at keeping the sun’s heat out.

“You’re paying for all of that,” Bagby said.

But perhaps the most innovative add-on came when condensation dripping out of the attic air conditioner rusted the old backyard A/C unit – and Gaines called the appliance guy.

“I said – ‘now tell me, about how much water would come off of there every day – out of the condensate line’,” Bagby said. “He said ‘I’d say four or five gallons a day’. I said ‘4, 5 gallons a day!? Wow – I could collect that water and water all of our plants out on the porch!'”

So that’s exactly what he did – attaching simple PVC pipes to a 55-gallon water drum that pumps straight into the garden hose.

“Most of the things really don’t cost a lot,” Bagby said. “They really don’t. It’s just a matter of thinking about it.”

“It’s easy,” Bagby said. “It doesn’t really change the way that we do things or our standard of living or anything. We just pay less for it, and we’re easier on the environment.”

Other easy ways to save energy – and money – include installing heavy curtains on windows that receive a lot of sunlight, and being sure not to run refrigerators in areas that aren’t air conditioned, like your garage.

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