If gas cost $9 per gallon, would you rearrange your week of driving? If you had to choose between a vacation and turning your thermostat up, would you live with a colder house?
Overall, if you live in the U.S., you don’t worry about the price of energy as much as most of the rest of the world.
My first real job after I graduated college ended up being one of the most incredible opportunities I could have imagined. I worked at the Caleffi headquarters outside of Milan, Italy for about a year. Beyond the excitement of getting to work overseas, I also saw how the energy we used every day was managed differently. We have it pretty good here in the States as far as basic heating, cooling, and electricity costs go. In an average month in Colorado, I generally notice my utility bills, but they don’t drastically alter my monthly routine. After the first cold snap when I was living in Italy, I found out the hard way how expensive energy is for most of the rest of the world.
The apartment I lived in near Caleffi was the first floor of a townhouse. It had a gas range and a small mod/con in the kitchen. It is very common to have your boiler either in your kitchen or out on your covered patio in warmer areas of the country. Instead of domestic storage, a flow switch would trip the boiler on through a small flat plate for my sink and bath. For the summer months, I received a gas bill only for the energy I used to cook. As it started to cool down, I set up my thermostat for basic setback around 68°F. Unfortunately, we only received our gas bill every two months. My bill for the first eight weeks of winter was the equivalent of about $580 USD. This was one of many moments where I was confronted with energy prices in a new way.
Needless to say, I turned down my thermostat more and wore a big sweater when I was home. I had to reevaluate what I considered conservative energy use. Before my time over there, I considered all zones at 68°F conservative energy use. Overall, I didn’t really have any idea of how much energy I used.
Compared to most of the U.S., most European systems meter the exact amount of hot water, cold water, gas, and electricity each individual unit uses. They don’t have the same energy billing strategy that most apartment complexes use in the U.S., where you take the bill and divide it equally between occupants. While I was in Italy, I got a bill for the precise amount of energy I used down to the cent.
Outside of my apartment, public buildings were especially protective of their energy bills. If you check into a hotel in Europe, you will notice a few different energy related distinctions. When you enter your room, you may have to put your card in a slot right by the door to allow your room lights and heating to turn on. When you leave with the key, the lights and heat turn off. In the States, we generally have the opposite approach. I usually walk into a hotel room where the air conditioning is pegged at 65°F and the lights may be on.
In European hotels, they don’t use as many of the through the wall PTAC type room conditioning systems either. Radiators with thermostatic actuators or low temperature ceiling cassette fan coils are more common. In the U.S., we prefer to punch a hole in the envelope of the building and jam a plastic and metal box in it to ensure every room has and independent heating and cooling system. Our biggest concern is the redundancy of having a different system per room; their biggest concern is energy use.
Instead of only using the most efficient cooling systems, much more attention is paid to preventing unwanted heat gain in the first place in Italy. In the U.S., we put blinds or curtains on the inside of our windows, which creates a hot pocket of air between the glass and curtains. In Europe, they use shutters on the outside of the window. If you have your blinds drawn on the inside of the window, you are not preventing rays of sun from entering your house, you are just keeping direct light from hitting your furniture. With heavy shutters closed before the sun can hit the glass, you keep everything but the conductive energy of the hot exterior of the building from coming through. This significantly reduces the need for cooling. In one hotel room I stayed in, the cooling wouldn’t even come on if the window was open. Once you closed the window, a relay allowed the A/C to start again.
Energy conservation isn’t optional in Italy. In order to sell your house there, you have to pay someone to evaluate the energy efficiency of your total home. The energy performance certificate the auditor creates shows a few simple charts of how many kilowatt hours of energy you can expect to spend on space conditioning and DHW in a year. Beyond being a nice thing to know from a homebuyer’s perspective, you are legally required to hit a certain level of efficiency for space heat before selling the unit. Your total home receives an energy grade on a similar scale to the color-coded A-G graph rating you would see on a wet rotor circulator.
Imagine if the home you live in received a letter grade that was published. Would that encourage you to upgrade your heating or cooling system? Being required to evaluate your home and possibly upgrade the efficiency of your system is a bolder approach than we have in the U.S.. Any sort of energy rating system Americans use is optional, and possibly something the homebuyer would have to request or pay for. A growing trend for realtors in the States is to conduct and advertise their own type of building performance score. We don't have one specific rating system to use, so the grade information may be harder to sift through.
In the U.S., we will one day be confronted with energy prices that will make us treat home energy differently. The pursuit of energy efficiency is not just AFUE and SEER ratings. In countries where energy is at a premium, the preventive and behavioral changes are just as important as equipment efficiency. I only had a glimpse of what life with high Italian energy prices was like, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to see the world of energy through that lens. Italians can brag about being rated second in the world by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). For the U.S., we have some cultural energy efficiency related changes to make if we want future generations to be protected from energy price spikes.
Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is currently an outside salesperson at Shamrock Sales in Denver. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and BPI Building Analyst, and is RPA’s Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.