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Lindsey Taggart: What Does Daylight-Saving Time Really Save?

While the ultimate conclusions are unclear, take these simple steps to energy-efficiency.

As we approach our biannual ritual of changing the clocks, the question of Daylight-Saving Time practicality is again brought to mind. Many strong opinions surround both Standard Time and Daylight-Saving Time; many folks prefer an extra hour of daylight in the morning for exercise or getting the kids to school, while others love having an extra hour of light in the evenings after getting home from a long day indoors. Similarly, many questions and controversies surround the time-change law: Does Daylight-Saving Time really save energy? Is changing the clocks forward or back bad for our mental or physical health? Who came up with this crazy idea anyway?

Lindsey Taggart
Lindsey Taggart

To answer that last question, Daylight-Saving Time, the period we’re about to “spring in to” at 2 a.m. Sunday, was originated by Englishman and outdoorsman William Willet in 1905 as a way to increase opportunities for afternoon leisure activities. However, the idea of taking advantage of sunlight as a conservation measure is actually linked further back, to Benjamin Franklin in 1784. His essay, “An Economical Project.” suggested that if people awoke earlier in the summer, they’d save on money and candle wax. The United States and other countries bought in to the energy-savings concept temporarily during World Wars I and II, and again in 1966, when DST was adopted into law.

On the topic of energy savings, there are very few statistically significant studies that provide conclusive evidence regarding DST’s true net-energy savings. One reputable study actually shows that DST might actually increase energy consumption. UCSB researchers compared households in Indiana before and after enacting DST in 2006, with a control group that did not change its clocks. That particular study showed a 1 percent to 4 percent increase in electricity consumption during DST. It turns out that electricity savings from using fewer lights for an extra hour was offset by the energy needed to cool buildings longer into the evenings.

While many recent studies focus on the affects of extending DST earlier into the spring and later into the fall, the determining factor of energy savings is actually regional climate differences. In hotter climates, having an extra hour of sunshine in the evenings often requires more energy for cooling than is saved by not needing the lights. In more temperate climates that don’t require much air conditioning, like the one we enjoy on the Central Coast, an extra hour of daylight is generally considered an energy saver and thought to be enjoyed by the majority of people, despite a lack of definitive evidence on either topic of discussion!

In addition to regional differences, DST-related energy consumption will rely heavily on the energy-efficiency of a building. Those with large areas of southern exposure will experience the most solar heat gain (interior heat buildup from sunshine) during the day. While southern exposure is typically a beneficial design principal here on the Central Coast, it has its drawbacks in hotter climates, resulting in the need for extra air conditioning. Other energy-efficient home features, like dual pane, low-e windows; thick wall, ceiling and floor insulation; radiant roof barriers; and window treatments or shade trees will help protect a home from solar heat gain and will greatly reduce the energy used for cooling.

Fortunately, there are many simple steps available to save energy in your building, regardless of time zone or time of year. For example, lights should all be efficient bulbs where possible, like compact fluorescents or LEDs. Air conditioning and heating units should be regularly maintained with new filters and should have SEER (AC seasonal energy efficiency rating) or AFUE (furnace efficiency rating) of at least 14 or 90, respectively. Also, using a programmable thermostat will help reduce accidental air conditioning — just don’t forget to reset the clock Sunday!

Don’t forget to check the energy demand on your appliances, as well. Appliances and electronics together account for around 45 percent of a typical household’s energy use, with water heaters, refrigerators and televisions hogging the most. Purchasing Energy Star-certified appliances and electronics can cut that demand by as much as 90 percent for some systems. Plugging multiple units into a power strip, and then cutting power to them all at once also is a simple way to help reduce “phantom load,” or the small amounts of energy used by equipment when they’re not turned on (think clocks or standby lights on coffee makers, stereos, etc.).

After making the home as efficient as possible, adding a solar system to help offset your electric or hot water needs is another great option. The best news is that energy-efficiency upgrades and solar installations are more affordable than ever in 2009, thanks to local and federal rebates and incentives. Click here for more information from the Community Environmental Council.

Lindsey Taggart is the Community Environmental Council’s building sector energy specialist and Santa Barbara Regional Council chairwoman of the U.S. Green Building Council’s California Central Coast Chapter. She can be contacted at [email protected] or 805.963.0583 x111.

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