Save a Buck—and a Watt

Energy Saving Ideas

Times are tough, there’s no doubt about it. We’re facing a convergence of multiple crises, from a warming planet to dwindling fossil fuel reserves to a stumbling economy. Reducing our energy consumption won’t make all these problems disappear overnight, but it can make a big difference.

The key is to take action now. To fire you up, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite energy-saving tips, starting with ones that won’t cost you a penny.


Free Ways to Save Energy and Money

    1. Flash your negawatt smile. A negawatt is any watt of electricity you don’t use. Listen to Mother Earth and turn off lights, TVs, and other gadgets when you don’t need them.
    2. When does “off” not mean “off”? When you’re talking about TVs, DVD players, cordless phones, battery chargers and dozens of other home electronics. If a product has a digital clock, electronic display, “instant-on” feature, remote control, or external power adaptor, it still draws standby power even when the device itself is turned off. This “leaking” energy, also known as “phantom load” or “vampire power,” accounts for about 25% of the total energy used by home electronics. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: unplug these devices from the wall outlet when you’re not using them (if they’re plugged into switched outlets, just turn off the switch), or plug them into power strips that you can easily switch on or off as needed. With the power strip switched off, no current flows to the electronic devices, so they don’t consume any electricity.
    3. Dress for the occasion. In the winter, put on a cozy sweater and set your thermostat a notch lower—68°F is comfortable for most people, but you might feel fine with the temperature even lower. In the summer, turn on the air conditioning only when you really need it, and set it to 78°F or higher. Raising the thermostat by 1 degree in the summer can reduce your air conditioning costs by 3% to 5%. Get more hot tips and cool ideas from our “Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning” articles.
    4. Be a smart cookie. When cooking smaller meals, save energy by using a microwave or toaster oven rather than heating up the full-size oven. On the stovetop, keep a lid on pots and don’t boil larger quantities of water than you need. For more energy-savvy cooking tips, check out our “Appliances” articles.
    5. Let the sun shine in (or keep it out). Window coverings are more than just window dressing—they can actually help manage your heating and cooling bills. On hot summer days, close window coverings on the sunny side of your home to keep it cooler. If winters are cold where you live, thick insulating drapes or shades will help keep warmth in at night. On sunny winter days, open the window coverings so the sun’s rays can help heat your home. See our “Window Treatments” article for more ways to green up your windows.
    6. Chill out. If you’ve got an extra fridge or freezer idling away in your garage or basement, it could be costing you $200 or more every year to keep it humming, depending on the model’s age and size. Spare your wallet and the planet by unplugging it. Many local utility companies will recycle your old refrigerator for free, and some will even send you a check after they take away the old watt-guzzler. Pick up more cool tips in our “Refrigerators and Freezers” article.
    7. Hang up and dry. Take advantage of the sun’s free energy and dry your clothes on a line. If it’s raining or you don’t have space outside, hang clothes indoors on lines or racks. If you do use a dryer, clean out the lint trap before every load—a lint-laden trap makes the dryer work harder and can be a fire hazard. Read our “Washers and Dryers” article for more green cleaning ideas.

Spend a Little, Save a Lot

    1. Time for a change. If you have a forced-air furnace (the most common heating system in the United States), inspect the filter once a month during the heating season. If it looks dark and clogged, replace it. A clogged filter means the furnace fan has to work harder, which wastes energy. You can buy a basic filter for a few dollars at home improvement stores, but for better indoor air quality, spend a bit more ($10 to $20) for a filter that’s designed to capture microscopic particles and allergens.
    2. Tighten up. Unwanted air leaks in your home can add 20% to your heating and cooling bills. Many basic air tightening tasks are easy and inexpensive. These include caulking gaps around windows, putting weather stripping around windows and doors, sealing heating and cooling ducts, and installing door sweeps to keep air from sneaking in under exterior doors. Before you run out to the home improvement store, check out the article and how-to videos in our “Air Sealing and Weatherization” section for tips. Some air leaks can be tricky to spot, so you may want to hire an energy auditor who will use special devices like infrared cameras and blower doors to pinpoint energy leaks.
    3. Lighten up. For nearly two decades, efficiency experts have been telling us to replace our conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) because they reduce energy use by 75% and last 8 to 10 times longer. Despite all the talk, only about 6% of American households use CFLs. Now that the price of CFLs has plunged (with good quality bulbs to be had for less than $2) there’s no excuse not to switch. Not all CFLs are created equal, so read our article on “Fluorescent Light Bulbs” before you go shopping.
    4. Set it and forget it. You may have the best of intentions, but it’s easy to forget to adjust heating and air conditioning systems before you go to work or to bed. Instead of relying on your memory, automate the process by installing a programmable thermostat. It ranges in cost from $40 to $200, but may save you as much as $180 per year. Read our “Programmable Thermostats” article and watch our video on how to install one.
    5. Be a control freak. Lighting accounts for about 20% of a typical American home’s energy use, and much of that goes toward lights that are left on longer than necessary. With lighting control devices, you can avoid much of that waste. A motion sensor can switch off a closet light after you’ve closed the door. A stairway light switch can be wired to a timer that automatically turns off the light a certain number of minutes after you’ve switched it on. If you want a porch light to stay on all night but not burn during the day, you can wire it to a photocell so that it automatically comes on at dusk and goes off at dawn. You can install basic lighting controls yourself, if you’re handy; more sophisticated controls may require an electrician. Get illuminated by reading our “Lighting Controls” article.

Bigger Investments

  1. Insulation: Out of sight but not out of mind. Think of insulation as your silent partner in saving money and energy, reducing your carbon footprint, and keeping you comfortable all year round. If your home is more than about 10 years old, adding insulation can pay for itself in a few years through reduced heating and cooling costs. Here’s a bonus: there’s a federal income tax credit available for 30% of the insulation’s cost, up to $1500. When assessing whether your home has adequate insulation, make the attic your top priority: more heat moves up and out through the attic than through the walls or floors. Get started by reading our “Insulation” article. To evaluate insulation in walls and other hard-to-access places, consider bringing in an energy auditor who can use an infrared device to locate hot or cold spots.
  2. A new kind of cool. Refrigerators and freezers chill our food but heat up the planet. And the cost of running them day to day adds up; in fact, they account for about 9% to 15% of a typical household’s energy bills. If yours is nearing the end of a refrigerator’s expected 15-year life span, now’s a good time to replace it with a high-efficiency model. Consider forgoing energy-consuming bells and whistles like side-by-side doors and through-door water and ice dispensers. Most of all, don’t supersize: in general, the larger the capacity, the more watts the fridge consumes. When shopping, don’t just look for the Energy Star. Compare the actual electricity use of various models; it’s printed on the yellow and black EnergyGuide label. Many utility companies offer rebates for purchasing the highest-efficiency refrigerators. Find out more ways to be chill in our “Refrigerators and Freezers” article.
  3. Lose the heating and cooling bill blues. Home heating takes a big bite out of our wallets, accounting for nearly 30% of the average U.S. home’s energy costs. If your gas or oil furnace is more than 20 years old, it may be time to replace it. Look for a model with an efficiency rating of 90% or higher and a variable speed motor. If you have a central air conditioner that’s more than 12 years old, replacing it with an Energy Star model can lower your cooling costs by 30%. Choose a central air conditioning system with a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) of at least 15; the federal minimum requirement is now 13, but many older AC systems have a SEER of only 7 or 8. Federal tax credits of $300 or more are available when you purchase certain types of energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. Read our articles on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning for the scoop on improving the performance of older systems and choosing new equipment.

5 Comments

  1. Vanessa October 12, 2009
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