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Simple energy savers help family pocket hundreds of dollars a year

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Emily and Ryan Bennett fell in love with the skylights, location and big back yard of their four-bedroom, 2,800-square foot house in Lincoln Park.

When they bought the house four years ago, they didn’t think much about the fact that the house was built in 1896 and rehabbed in 1995, or check the condition of insulation in the attic or around the furnace.

“We were used to living in condos where we’d just pay our condo association fees,” Ryan Bennett said. “We didn’t pay particular attention to how old the air-conditioning system was, or how outdated the furnace or thermostat system was, or that insulation was starting to fall down in the attic.”

They quickly learned to check for drafty windows, use a programmable thermostat and ensure that the water heater was insulated properly.

The need to update the home’s energy efficiency hit home after the Bennetts had children. One hot summer that required keeping cool with Graham, 2, and Elliot, 10 months, the Bennetts got a monthly electric bill for $450.

Ryan Bennett turned to Jason Blumberg when Bennett heard his old college roommate had co-founded a home energy-efficiency startup,

The Bennetts logged on to the website, took the free virtual energy audit and found they could quickly and cheaply close some of their homes’ energy gaps.

Based on the savings plan recommendations, the Bennetts spent $500 to buy power strips, new showerheads, two programmable thermostats, a water-heater cover and 35 compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). They spent $3,000 to replace one of their two furnaces.

Ryan Bennett, a lawyer, said he understands why people cringe at the idea of replacing a furnace rather than spending that money on a vacation, but he is starting to understand that there is a long-term payoff.

“We are already starting to save some money,” he said.

After making the improvements, the Bennetts’ power and natural-gas costs in December and January decreased $39 each month compared to the same months a year earlier.

“In Chicago, much like anywhere, you’re going to realize greater cost savings during the peak months when temperatures are at their extremes, and so is your energy usage,” Ryan said. “But even in a milder month like November, the new CFL lightbulbs alone cut $17 off of our power bill. It adds up.”

Next the Bennetts will improve the attic insulation and deal with the home’s unheated crawl space, he said.

At, homeowners or renters log in fill out a form with details such as their home’s age, address, square footage, type of windows, ages of furnaces and air-conditioning and other details. They receive a list of steps they can take to improve their energy efficiency, whether that means replacing light bulbs or a furnace, and can order products from the site.

Blumberg learned about energy savings when he worked at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and turned to his friend from college, James Carlin, a JPMorgan Chase investment banker, to start the website to help homeowners save energy. Blumberg serves on the advisory board of the Clean Energy Trust, a new Chicago-based non-profit that will provide funding to entrepreneurs and university researchers who come up with the best ways to produce alternative and clean energies.

“The average homeowner can reduce his energy bill by 30 percent, or $700 to $900 a year, by making their homes and appliances more energy efficient,” Blumberg said.

The average home in the Chicago region was built in 1965, has an attic, uses natural gas and central air conditioning, and has 2,000 square feet over two stories.

The online energy audit service has plenty of competition, but Blumberg said it is the easiest to use because it acts as a one-stop shop.

“You can order a more energy-efficient product from the web site or get a free estimate on a service,” Blumberg said. “We have 1,200 products ranging from GE light bulbs to Whirlpool refrigerators.”

Homeowners can set up a registry service and print a list of the improvements they’ve made to their houses from the website. They can use it to show potential buyers the improvements they’ve made that justify their selling price.

Online rivals offering energy assessments include Energy Guide, Energy Savvy, EnergyStar, Microsoft’s Hohm and Wattbott. A federal program, “Home Energy Score,” has debuted in 10 communities nationwide to give homeowners scores on their home energy efficiency. ComEd also is running a pilot project enabling near west suburban and Chicago families to see their energy-use details via a smart meter and a website.

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