When Clarissa Murphy read aloud the entry "five-minute shower" from the energy-saving checklist, she glanced up with a quizzical look.
"I don't know if I can commit to that one," she said with a laugh to the two student energy auditors from River Hill High School standing in a bathroom of her Clarksville home. "There's the shaving of the legs and the washing of the hair," she said.
Then Murphy offered a compromise. "A low-flow shower head [to conserve hot water usage] could probably be installed though," she said.
Later in the free room-by-room home analysis, a tip on reducing junk mail to lessen landfill volume got Murphy enthusiastic.
"My God, I would love to do that," she said to Charles Zhuang, 17, and Gautam Rao, 14, upon learning how to remove her address from third-class mailing lists. "I guarantee that 90 percent of what's in our mailbox is trash."
Tuesday's home energy audit was the 34th conducted by the high school's ecology club since its 20 members were trained at the end of September, said Susan Lower, science teacher and club sponsor.
C.P. Shankar, a River Hill parent, suggested the idea of using student auditors to Lower. They met when he attended Lower's showing of former Vice President Al Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which she followed up with a PowerPoint presentation that pinpointed ways residents can reduce energy waste.
"Mr. Shankar owns an energy business in California, so he is obviously interested in energy use as it affects climate change," Lower said.
River Hill is the only public high school in the county to offer the in-home analysis, which is part of the National Energy Scholar certification program, Lower said. But, she added, "There's a distinct possibility that we may get this program into other schools."
Lower said she gave a presentation to the county's biology teachers last spring and plans to give another one this spring.
"I think it is our mandate to make teaching about energy waste part of our curriculum, just as we already teach other environmental issues," she said.
For now, River Hill area residents such as Heather Jefferson are enjoying the benefits of having trained energy auditors in their neighborhood. Since having her home surveyed in mid-October, she said that making simple changes saved her family $40 on their Baltimore Gas and Electric bill.
"I think it is a great service," Jefferson said. "They teach you that saving energy is mostly a matter of changing your habits."
One bad energy habit practiced in most homes is the continued use of incandescent light bulbs. Compact fluorescent light bulbs last seven to 10 times longer and use 75 percent less energy, Rao told Murphy as he presented her with two of the bulbs for agreeing to the audit. Turning lights off when you leave a room also will reduce waste, he added.
Another common misconception concerns idle appliances that remain plugged into electric sockets.
"Anything that has an LED read-out is still drawing power even when it's turned off," said Zhuang, mentioning computers, video players and phone chargers as major culprits. "These electronics are called energy vampires because they suck electricity and should be unplugged when not in use."
Lower reprinted one of her BGE bills in the club's home energy audit booklet to show the level of savings possible by implementing recommendations. The bill lists a usage profile that compares this September to last, when the average outdoor temperature was nearly identical, and clearly shows that her family slashed its bill in half and saved $170.
"About 56 percent of the electricity used by Howard County comes from coal-burning power plants which emit carbon dioxide, sulfur, mercury, particulates and other greenhouse gases," Lower said later, adding that mercury emissions get into bodies of water and then into fish. "Our auditors' goal is to help homeowners eliminate energy waste and reduce the amount of carbon they emit into the atmosphere."
Said Zhuang: "Some people doubt that these small changes can make a difference, but they really do add up."
Some of the tips that student auditors suggest require an investment - such as installing a programmable thermostat to regulate heating or cooling when residents aren't home or buying an energy-efficient refrigerator, both of which Murphy had. But many tips require only a different approach - washing only full loads when using the dishwasher or laundry machines, and turning the temperature of the water heater down.
"It is not easy to change someone's behavior," Rao said of his experiences with homeowners. "But we don't hassle people. We just show them what they can do."
Residents who live in the River Hill area can contact Lower to arrange a home analysis by sending an e-mail with energy audit in the subject line to email@example.com.
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it.
E-mail Janene at jholzberg76 @msn.com, or call 410-461- 4150.