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The Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS)

Message From PD&R Senior Leadership
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The Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS)

Image of Todd M. Richardson, General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.Todd M. Richardson, General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.

PD&R is in the business of fielding surveys and using data from surveys. As you know, PD&R supports the American Housing Survey (AHS), the Rental Housing Finance Survey, and others.

Because of this, when I personally receive a survey, I am super excited. I am even more excited when it is for a survey from which I will later use the data. Just such excitement occurred for me in the last month when on my doorstep (literally) was a large envelope containing a survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) called the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS). My chance of selection was probably lower than 1 in 3,000. That feels like winning the lottery.

First conducted in 1978, RECS collects detailed information on household energy characteristics. RECS informs a number of DOE reports, including the Annual Energy Outlook and Monthly Energy Review. HUD also uses RECS data for utility calculations in the AHS and the Housing Choice Voucher program. The most recent RECS, with a sample of around 6,000, was fielded in 2015.

Data collection for the 2020/2021 RECS is underway. This is the first time DOE has relied on online responses for RECS, and this more efficient way of data collection has allowed them to triple their target for completed surveys relative to 2015 to 18,000 responses.

The 219 survey questions took me about 90 minutes to complete. The letter said it should take me 30 minutes, so maybe I was slow. Or overzealous. I pulled out my tape measure to calculate the cubic feet of my two refrigerators and chest freezer. I also had to dig around in the recycling bin to find my electric and gas bills so I could provide my account numbers.

Which brings up an important feature of the RECS survey. They do not ask about actual energy consumption. After they get my account numbers, they reach out to my utility providers to get that information directly from them.

And yet, the survey contains 219 questions. Filling out the survey reminded me that I have a lot of appliances. My furnaces and hot water heater are getting old. It was kind of fun to count all of the light bulbs in the house, including indicating what fraction are LED, CFL, or incandescent.

In the 2015 RECS, 5 percent of households said “most or all lightbulbs were LED”; 40 percent said “most or all lightbulbs CFL”; and 36 percent said “most or all lightbulbs incandescent.” CFLs are roughly 65 to 75 percent more efficient than incandescent bulbs; LEDs are roughly 75 to 80 percent more efficient. I bet that in 2020, almost no household will still be reporting all or most lightbulbs as incandescent. If I am right, the LED revolution will have done a lot to save energy.

The survey asks a number of interesting questions, including if you have installed solar panels on your home. The 2015 RECS showed just 1.5 percent of homes had solar panels. While still a small number, I bet this has also increased substantially over the past 5 years given the falling cost of solar panels.

A new potential draw on residential power are electric cars. As such, the survey also asks if you use an electric car and how it is charged.

Consumption data should be very interesting for the 2020/2021 RECS because the global pandemic dramatically altered our behavior and consumption patterns. We will see if the energy savings technology of the last 5 years counterbalances the increased time we have been home. The survey, helpfully, will document some of our consumption habits during the pandemic. Did we spend more time online? How much more TV did we watch last year than 5 years ago? You may or may not be surprised by the 2015 RECS data on TV consumption. In 2015, RECS data show that about 36 percent of American households watched TV 4 to 6 hours per weekday, about 18 percent watched 7 to 10 hours per weekday, and about 14 percent watched more than 10 hours per weekday. Put another way, 68 percent of American households watched at least 4 hours of TV per weekday. I imagine we spent many, many more hours in front of the TV in 2020.

Check out the data for yourself:

Published Date: 8 March 2021

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.