Breaking Down Average Energy Use in U.S. Homes with the Residential Energy Consumption Survey

Every several years, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a sub-office in the U.S. Department of Energy, conducts the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) and publishes the results publicly. The periodic publication of RECS allows the wise homeowners, energy professionals, and efficiency advocates to monitor the trends on the residential building space, anticipate future changes to the residential energy demand, and properly assess energy needs.

Before that’s possible, though, a base-level understanding of the type of information collected and disseminated through RECS is required. After understanding the data to expect from the surveys, keen readers will be able to find relevant conclusions from RECS and ultimately use that information to their benefit.

RECS Survey Information

When conducting RECS, EIA administers the survey to a representative sample of households across the country, cutting across regions, home types, income-level, and more. The data collected on these homes includes energy usage data, characteristics of the building that relate to energy use (such as types of appliances used, typical patterns of when people are home, and type of rates offered by the energy suppliers), and more. These data points are collected through direct interview with homeowners by trained energy professionals. Additionally, EIA reaches out to the utility companies and energy providers themselves that serve these homes to determine the exact amount and type of energy being supplied, including the fuel sources that make up that energy supply. Through these two methods, the final result of RECS is considered across the energy industry to be the most accurate and representative data source for understanding residential sector building energy use.

EIA makes publicly available the exact surveys used at every step of the RECS process to demonstrate the robustness of the data collected and the survey methods used. An example from the 2015 RECS cycle can be found on the EIA website, with a version showing the paper survey that homes would be mailed, a more thorough computer-assisted personal interview for homeowners, a similar computer-assisted personal interview directed at landowners or apartment managers, and even surveys to be filled out by the providers of electricity, natural gas, and propane to given homes. In this way, RECS is truly able to capture all the necessary information from its representative sample to intricately know what type of energy is being delivered to homes in what quantities and how it is being used.

The most recent version of RECS was published based on 2015 data (the next set of data is already being collected, as RECS is typically published every four years or so), but the collection and analysis of that data are intensive enough that it didn’t get released until 2018.

PRECS’s insights are varied and useful to those who want to know more about energy use in the residential sector, so let’s take a look at some of the takeaways from this most recent version.

Findings from the Most Recent RECS

The key data and analyses from RECS are composed of more than just raw energy numbers. On a basic level, RECS starts by providing an outline of square footage, household demographics, and the major energy users (heating, cooling, lighting, appliances, and electronics). With these as baselines and a means to increase granularity in data, RECS outlines the energy use, the applications the energy use is broken up between, and the exact installed equipment consuming the energy. Further, the fuel types providing the vast energy needed in the residential building sector are identified and parceled out individually, from electricity to natural gas to fuel oil. In these vast data sets, there really is no shortage of insights to gain for the informed reader looking for energy solutions, you just need to dive in.

But knowing how and where to start can surely be intimidating for the average reader. As such, EIA carefully curates accompanying documents and releases. Much of this information can be found on the RECS website, including webinars, summaries, and more. Throughout the year, EIA also provides bite-sized summaries of particularly useful or interesting findings from RECS, including the following:

Space heating and water heating combine to account for nearly two thirds of energy use across American households, highlighting how critical these functions are to examine when thinking about efficiency upgrades

Air conditioning accounts for about 12% of energy bills across U.S. homes, though that obviously varies depending on climate

Peripheral devices, such as streaming devices or video game consoles, now consume nearly as much energy in U.S. homes as televisions for the first time

Across U.S. homes, one in three face issues in paying for their energy needs and/or sustaining adequate heating and cooling in their homes

How Homeowners Can Use This Information

Once all the data for RECS is collected, aggregated, and published, the use of this comprehensive survey is vast. This information can be used by homeowners or other building owners to compare their current energy use needs with other similar buildings. Experts in the energy field can be brought in to compare the RECS results with future trends to identify opportunities for energy savings. Policymakers and utilities themselves can identify trends from this survey to determine positions on regulatory actions and tax incentives that can help save homeowners energy in the future. Even further, RECS provides the complete data sets for the previous years that the survey was published. Using this historical data in addition to the most recent set of data allows for investigation into trends over the years and comparable predictions regarding the continuation of those trends.

Homeowners who see that their energy use is widely varied from comparable homes elsewhere are given an insight into what actions they can and should take to save on their energy bill and decrease their carbon footprint. The benefits of reducing energy demand are widely recognized and sought after, so RECS presents a great opportunity for homeowners to dig deep and evaluate their current performance and needs compared with what’s actually possible. Doing so will surely give them a leg up over homeowners who are instead left in the dark (darkness that wouldn’t be necessary if they employed more efficient lighting!)

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