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US: Snazzier houses bring energy crisis home to middle class

NEW YORK - In Ossining, N.Y., a "For Sale" sign hangs on a seven-bedroom home with six fireplaces, an indoor pool with a waterfall, and a steam room. In Wayland, Mass., a 6,500-square-foot home on the market features a master suite with two baths. And in Washington Township, N.J., a five-bedroom, seven-bath home includes a 150-gallon fish tank and a game room with its own hot tub.

These examples may be extreme, but they're indicative of the "SUVing," as some people call it, of the American home. And they show one reason why utility bills, even before the first inflated one this winter, are going up.

The old homestead - and not just the kind with seven baths - is increasingly filled with multiple refrigerators, plasma TV sets, and lap pools. The result is that this year's energy woes, more than ever, are hitting the American middle class and upper middle class as well as the poor.

"I recently toured a $1.2 million home which had a $28,000 high-definition television that uses as much electricity as the furnace does," says Neal Elliott, industrial program director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Home heating-oil prices are 60 percent higher than a year ago. Propane, often used by rural and lower-income families, is 30 percent higher.

Natural gas, currently about 11 percent higher than last year, is expected to rise in price once winter begins. In fact on Tuesday, natural-gas prices hit their highest prewinter level ever on the futures market.

For the average family, these higher prices may be a wake-up call. In 2000, ACEEE estimated the average home budget for energy was about $6,000, split evenly between fueling the family car and heating the hearth. Now, that number is estimated to be between $8,000 and $9,000, Mr. Elliott says.

"All of a sudden this is a big chunk, particularly for the lower-income and fixed-income households," he says.

Moreover, it's not just mega-appliances that have raised energy consumption. The increased use of "plug-ins" is also making an impact. For example, a cellphone charger, if left plugged in, continues to consume a few watts of energy. The same is true for the microwave, VCR, stereo, and home computer. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham calls them "energy vampires" because they are constantly sucking a little bit of wattage out of the wall. "After a while they all add up to be as big a load factor as the refrigerator," says Elliott.

Energy expenses are rising even though many houses have better insulation and efficient "Energy Star" windows. New standards have also made appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners more efficient. This lowers the cost of heating on a per-square-foot basis.

But at the same time, the nation's abodes, just like the size of the average car, are getting larger and more complicated. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average new house was 2,230 square feet in 2003, compared with 1,500 square feet in 1970. And it's not unusual to see something much larger. Last year, the NAHB showcase home in Las Vegas was more than 5,000 square feet. This year's home in Orlando, Fla., is more than 8,000 square feet.

"More and more people are seeing their home as their sanctuary, and they want every possible amenity," says Paul Lopez, director of media relations at NAHB.

These amenities often involve water - especially hot water. For example, one of the hottest new fads is multiple-head shower systems. In an ad, plumbing company Grohe, whose headquarters are in Germany, writes that its Aquatower "Relaxa Plus Top 4" shower head has four spray patterns: "an effervescent champagne stream; a pulsator massage spray; a wide soft regular spray and wide hard regular spray."

All that hot water, of course, is coming from the hot-water heater. According to the home-improvement website "On the House With the Carey Brothers," each shower head could shoot three gallons of water per minute, which means four heads could drain a 40-gallon tank in less than 3-1/2 minutes. "For true luxury and long, hot steamy showers, plan on beefing up your hot water supply, too," say the brothers on their website.

Unfortunately for most households, boosting the hot-water supply means using more energy. According to the National Oilheat Research Alliance, 40 percent of a home's heating oil is used for hot water. "People have multiple dishwashers, washing machines, Jacuzzis, his-and-her showers. We use a ton of hot water," says John Huber, president of the alliance.

What's more, Americans are adding refrigerators so they don't have to travel far for a cold drink. "We're seeing that second, third, or fourth refrigerator in a home," says Elliott. "People want a small one upstairs, one in the basement, maybe one in the garage."

Decorative natural-gas fireplaces retrofitted in a traditional chimney are also big energy consumers, says Mr. Huber. "When they are installed, a steel wedge is inserted by the damper to make sure they are never closed. So they are always sucking heat out of the room and right up the chimney."

This winter's high cost of maintaining all these amenities may start to slow the trend. In 2001, both New York and California faced electricity crises. This prompted a return to conservation, says Elliott. The reduced demand helped lower natural-gas prices.

"We know we can affect behavior if we commit to it," he says. "But so far we haven't seen any leadership on the state and national level saying we have to do something."

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