Math Lesson Before Buying a Hybrid

This week, Gail does the math behind buying a hybrid and offers more tips on saving energy at home.

Dear Friends,

Once again, this column is all about saving energy.

This week I’m posting more answers to your questions about saving energy at home and announcing the remaining ten winners of the “Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings” from the non-profit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). I urge you to visit their website for additional tips you can use to reduce your energy bill:

Quite a few of the questions came from folks who live in older homes where the level of “charm” is directly proportional to the level of “leaks.” If this is your situation, the smart people at ACEEE recommend you read No Regrets Remodeling by the editors of Home Energy Magazine. It’s available for $19.95 through the ACEEE website.

Do recent price increases at the gas pump have you thinking about trading in your current gas-guzzler for one of the new hybrids — or, perhaps a vehicle that runs on an alternative energy source such as ethanol? If so, a great place to find out more is Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, (which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy). Under the Energy Tax Incentives Act passed last year, certain vehicles are eligible for up to a $3,000 tax credit.

A word of caution: before you sign up for a new car loan, do the math. Just because one of the new models might be able to deliver, say, double the miles per gallon, that doesn’t mean that you should rush to buy it—especially in light of the “premiums” many dealers are currently tacking on to the list prices.

Say the loan on your current vehicle is $10,000 and this 3-year-old car gets 20 miles per gallon. The new hybrid you’re considering costs $26,000 and gets 40 miles per gallon. Furthermore, let’s assume you drive 18,000 miles per year (1,500 miles per month). At an average price of $3 a gallon, your existing car will cost you $2,700 a year in gasoline (18,000/20 = 900 gallons a year x $3 a gallon). Filling up the tank for a year in the new one will be half that, or $1,350 a year.

Assuming you qualify for a $2,000 tax credit, you’d be spending roughly $14,000 to save $1,350 a year. This means it would take you more than 10 years to break even!

Even if gas prices hit $4 a gallon, it will take you nearly 8 years to break even.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for reducing our dependency on oil and cleaning up the environment. And it’s entirely possible that you think these goals are worth the extra money you’d be laying out. All I’m suggesting is that you not let your panic at the pump get the better of your judgment.

Right now dealers are getting top-dollar for these vehicles because American drivers are (literally) Shell-shocked.* Or Exxon-shocked, or BP-shocked. Do you think it’s possible that the cost of hybrids and alternative fuel cars will decline as manufacturers bring more to market and competition heats up? Might some of the problems experienced with certain models be solved in a couple of years?

If you’re in the market for a new car, by all means it makes sense to consider one of the more fuel-efficient ones. I just want you to understand the economics.

You will find the latest news on alternative energy initiatives and a current list of all of the vehicles that have qualified for federal tax credits at:

The lucky winners of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings are listed at the end of the following question and answer section. Please be patient: the books are being sent by ACEEE. If you’re not a winner, you can buy the consumer guide for $13.95 by calling 202-429-0063 or by going to

Q: We are still in the 'fix-the-disaster' phase of repairing this house. Our heater has broken down at least 2-3 times during the last 4 years. There is no insulation that I found in the attic. The doors are very old & warped. Cold air constantly pours in. It is very tough to deal with all this especially with 2 young children living in this house.

A: Before installing attic insulation, carefully examine the attic floor or joist spaces. Seal every gap where air from the interior can get into the attic. This includes framing gaps, and pass-throughs for wiring and vent pipes. If this is not done, there is high risk of moisture damage to the wood or plywood beneath the roof. After sealing, choose a good insulation (fiberglass, cellulose, or foam). Loose cellulose and fiberglass can be a do-it-yourself (DIY) project, with appropriate care to wear adequate protection.

In terms of sealing the gaps around your doors, we’d start with do-it-yourself gasket kits from a hardware or home supply house to stabilize the doors. If the house and doors are “historic,” this may be all you want to do. If not, you may want to gradually replace them with modern pre-hung insulated equivalents.

If you want to upgrade your heating or cooling system, first and foremost, find a qualified contractor. Choosing a good contractor to install a new furnace or air conditioner can be as important as the equipment you choose because proper installation and maintenance is needed for the equipment to operate safely, reliably, and at maximum efficiency. For more information, see ACEEE's tips on picking the right contractor, read the advice from ENERGY STAR, and download their useful HVAC guide.

Q: As a native Floridian who now lives in the high desert of southern California I have learned the meaning of the phrase "But it's a dry heat..." I am thinking of replacing the original windows in our 1959 house with energy-efficient windows.

A: Replacing windows just to save energy is generally not a very good investment. However, if you are replacing windows for other reasons, then the small extra cost for ENERGY STAR windows is almost always highly cost-effective. In addition to energy savings, these windows will make the space more comfortable, and cut down on drafts. They may even help protect furnishings from fading!

For more information about the best energy-efficient windows to buy, visit the ENERGY STAR windows webpage.

Q: I live in a home that was built in 1969. It has leaky aluminum windows, a hollow front door and questionable insulation. I have made it my mission to gradually increase the energy efficiency of my home. Over the next few months I am going to begin replacing some of my windows (I can't afford to do it all at once) and my front door. What else do you suggest that will give me the most bang for my buck?

A: We like your approach of looking for quick improvements and implementing a gradual improvement plan for the expensive items like windows. Be sure you get ENERGY STAR windows appropriate for your climate and the compass orientation of the windows. Be sure to visit the Energy Star website. (See above.)

In addition, Review our online checklist for action at to see simple things you can do today, this week, and over the coming months to save energy. Inexpensive ideas for saving on cooling and heating bills usually revolve tightening up air leaks in the doors, windows, un-insulated wall cavities, and air ducts.

Q: Will installing aluminum siding over the stucco currently covering the exterior of our house improve the energy efficiency? Will it keep heated or air-conditioned air from leaking out?

A: Siding by itself is unlikely to save much energy. However, when new siding is installed over a significant amount of new insulation, it can reduce bills significantly. Just a couple of cautions: This project requires an outstanding contractor, because in some climates, you run the risk of moisture damage if it’s not done properly.

Q: Our house is relatively new, but it still requires significant improvements. We feel drafts in the outlets of exterior walls. This bothers us, as not only are we paying to heat northern Indiana, but this wasted energy is only sapping future resources as well.

A: Hardware and home improvement stores carry easy-to-install foam gaskets that reduce cold air infiltration through outlets. Those of us who work at ACEEE, we use them in our own homes. But, don’t expect this alone to yield a dramatic decrease in energy bills.

The real question is why a relatively new house seems to have major draft problems. Understanding this requires a professional with serious diagnostics with tools such as a blower door and an infrared viewer. For tips on how to pick the right company for the job, see ACEEE's tips on picking the right contractor.

Q: We own a home built in 1929 with amazing woodwork and all the charm that an older home brings. It's absolutely perfect ... except that it's a booger to heat and cool. We're constantly trying to find new ways to keep our utilities down. December's heating bill was $700 which is half of what my husband brings home the whole month, so we're obviously desperate to learn how to make our home that we love more affordable and not have to sell and buy something else.

A: A good place to start is ACEEE’s Checklist for Action.

Q: What are your thoughts on pellet stoves? I was quoted a price at $5,000 for the stove insert, piping-venting, misc, and labor.

A: Unfortunately, ACEEE has no information on the performance of pellet stoves at this time. However, we often find that measures to reduce the demand for heat (insulation, crack-sealing, etc.) save more per dollar invested than expensive investments in new equipment — provided the present equipment is operating properly.

Hi, Gail,
My wife and I purchased my mother’s house last year after my mother’s diabetes and emphysema reached a point where she could no longer care for herself. We moved her to an assisted living facility. I purchased her house from her to aid with her debt problems, and to keep the house in the family since my father built half of it himself. Even though we had a mild winter, it was still cold here in Buffalo. It costs much more to heat than our previous house did.
I would use this guide to help me lower my energy costs in as many ways as possible and keep my family warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Thank you,

We bought an older home and have just begun to realize how much work it needs. Our heater has broken down at least 2-3 times during the last 4 years. It is very tough to deal with all this especially with 2 young children living in this house. The book will help me prioritize getting things in order.

Thank you very much,

Hi, Gail-
We rent (trying to buy) a house built in the late fifties. In the cold Wyoming winter, it leaks like a sieve.

A book that can help keep us warm and reduce some of the
expenses would be most welcome.




Our family is very conscience about energy usage. Last fall, prior to the tax credits for upgrading our attic insulation, we went forward with the project, adding over 60 bags of insulation to bring the attic to R-50.

Our goal is to continually use less therms and kilo-watt hours each heating and cooling season. We have montored it since our last house, and continue to try and save at least 5% each new season.


Dear Gail,
I am a single mom with 3 kids and do not have the funds to "get my windows replaced" as is being recommended in order for me to save energy in my home. The windows in my home are the original ones put in when it was built 28 years ago.

I replaced my AC unit and air handler about 3 years ago as well as my hot water heater, but need inexpensive ideas for reducing my utility bills.

Hi Gail.
We live in New Hampshire and when its cold and windy, the house struggles to keep drafts, ect out. I could really use this information.
Thank you,

We are a retired couple with enormous medical bills, and truly need ways to help the budget. Most of all, Texas can be cold and living on a concrete slab doesn't help the old bones or bills when we get the winds and cold from the plains. Needless to mention the opposite end of the spectrum in the summer. Any suggestions for economizing and being resourceful are appreciated.
Thank You,

Hi Gail,
We are a family of six with one income. We live in an old house that we are updating and remodeling. We are always looking for ways to save money on our utilities! We have friends doing the same. Just today I gleaned from your article the tip of the water heater blanket.


Minus 68 is the key temperature for us, exactly 100 degrees below freezing.
We live miles from commercial power using a generator and batteries with an
invertor; oil stove and wood for cooking and heat. I welcome any information
that will help to make and keep the house warmer and more comfortable.


Dear Gail-
Due to medical problems that my wife and son experience, our budget is always stretched pretty tight. Any reduction in energy expenses would be a great benefit financially and make us feel that we are doing something to help our country become more energy efficient.
Thank you for your time.

My thanks to the staff at ACEEE for providing the answers to your questions.

Hope this helps,

OK, OK. I know that Shell U.S. merged with Texaco, but you’ve gotta love the play on words!